What Is a Generic Medication

Not sure what the difference between a generic medication and its brand-name counterpart is?

If so, you're not alone. Many consumers are unaware that the generic name of a medication is its chemical name or active ingredient. The brand name is simply the name a manufacturer gives it. All generic medications must pass through the same U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process as brand-name ones. The FDA ensures that all generic medications have the same active ingredients, strength, and form (e.g., pill, liquid, injection) as their brand-name versions. Inactive ingredients such as colorings and fillers, which differ between brand-name and generic medications, must also meet strict FDA standards.

Generic medications cost less because they are only available after the patent a drug maker holds for a brand-name drug expires. Pharmaceutical companies therefore avoid the research and development and advertising costs of a brand-name medication. As a result, generic medications are considerably less expensive to produce and market.

If you'd like to see firsthand a sample cost comparison of brand-name and generic medications, download our  The Value of Generic Medications. This sample list, arranged alphabetically, helps illustrate the potential cost-effectiveness of generic medications.

Special Note Regarding Allergy Medications

Did you know that many allergy medications that used to require a prescription are now available over-the-counter (OTC) at your retail pharmacy without a prescription? Keep in mind that the OTC versions must meet the same FDA requirements for safety and effectiveness as the prescription versions. Consult your physician or pharmacist if you have any questions about OTC allergy medications. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts does not cover most OTC pharmacy costs, such as allergy medications.

Therapeutic Class: Understanding Your Options

All drugs fall within a family, or therapeutic class, defined as the general conditions they treat. This is important to remember when exploring your medication options. It means that even if your brand-name prescription doesn't have a generic version, you may be able to take the generic equivalent of a different brand-name medication within the same therapeutic class.

For example, PPI's (Proton Pump Inhibitors) are used for stomach upset and ulcer treatment. These include Prilosec and Protonix. Only Prilosec has a generic version available, called omeprazole. So, if you are taking one of the brand name PPI's, omeprazole might be an appropriate, less costly alternative providing the same benefit.

Consult your doctor if you have questions about therapeutic class or to find out if you may benefit from a generic medication.

Do I Have to Ask for a Generic Equivalent?

Many states, including Massachusetts, now require pharmacists to fill prescriptions with generic equivalents (when available) unless otherwise specified by a physician. In other states, it's up to the individual to discuss using generic equivalents with his or her doctor.

In both cases, it's recommended that you discuss all your prescription options—including generics—with your physician.

Now that you're in the know, it's time to learn about what you can do to stay informed and make educated decisions about your medications. Read our Your Role: The Rx You Need section to learn more.