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Facts About Generic Drugs vs. Brand-Name Drugs

For many people, choosing a brand-name over a generic drug has little to do with treatment or cost. It’s usually based on several common untruths. Though generic drugs can cost a lot less than brand-name options, there is often concern about quality, safety and effectiveness.

What are generic drugs?

When a brand-name drug's patent protection expires, generic versions of the drug can be approved for sale. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires generic drugs to be the same as brand-name drugs in:

  • Active ingredients
  • Safety
  • Strength
  • Quality
  • Purity
  • How they work
  • How they are taken
  • How they should be used

The FDA states that all drugs must work well and are safe. Generic drugs use the same active ingredients as brand-name drugs and work the same way. They also have the same risks and benefits as brand-name drugs.

United States trademark laws do not allow generic drugs to look exactly like brand-name drugs. This is why they are different in color, taste and other elements. It does not affect the way the drugs work.

New drug patents can protect them up to 17 years. Patents forbid anyone else from making and selling the drug. Once a new drug patent expires, other drug companies can then start making and selling the generic version of the drug. The FDA must approve it first before it goes to market.

Generic drugs will work in your body the same way and in the same amount of time as brand-name drugs.

Because generic drug makers do not make a drug from scratch, the costs to bring it to market are much less. But they must prove their product performs the same way as the brand-name drug. All generic drugs are approved by the FDA.

Choosing a generic drug

Generic drugs are proven to be safe and effective. They typically cost much less than brand-name drugs. Your doctor will usually choose a generic over a brand drug. Also, network pharmacies may replace generic drug for a brand drug if one is available. If you ask for the brand drug when a generic is on hand, your doctor must request prior approval or an exception for it to be covered.

3 Fast Rx facts

  • 8 in 10 prescriptions filled in the U.S. are for generic drugs.
  • On average, the cost of a generic drug is 80% to 85% lower than the brand-name drug.
  • Generic drugs save consumers an average of $8 to $10 billion a year at retail pharmacies. Even more billions are saved when hospitals use generics.

More information

  • For more information on brand-name vs. generic drugs, please visit the Food and Drug Administration site.
  • Please consult your Evidence of Coverage booklet for more information on your covered prescription drug benefits.

Note: This information is not intended as medical advice. Nor is it an exchange for professional medical care. Always ask your doctor about any concerns you may have about your medical condition. Be sure to follow your doctor's instructions.

Facts About Generic Drugs vs. Brand-Name Drugs (PDF)