John McMillin: To take generic meds or not, that is the question

John McMillin • Updated May 23, 2017 at 6:30 PM

Every morning I face the same routine, a cup of coffee and the news, shower, shave, brush my teeth and take my pills. Like most folks in this area, I take something for allergies, a vitamin and one prescription medication for high blood pressure. 

My prescription is generic, because I simply can’t see the difference in paying more. However, I made this decision only after my doctor agreed it was the best route for me. 

So what is the difference between generic and brand name drugs? United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland would like to pass along some information from our prescription drug discount card provider, FamilyWize. In their new “Ask an Expert” blog series, Ken Majkowski with Pharm.D and chief pharmacy officer at FamilyWize, addresses the most common questions about prescription vs. generic drugs. 

First and foremost, it is important to understand that brand name drugs have a generic name, as well. When a brand name drug goes off patent, another manufacturer can make a generic equivalent of that drug. There are also therapeutic equivalent drugs, which are made of different chemicals but work similarly to each other. 

For example, Lipitor is a heavily advertised drug used to treat high cholesterol. Lipitor is the drug’s brand name. Atorvastatin is the generic name. Since Lipitor lost its patent, several other drug companies now make a generic equivalent of Lipitor. That means the FDA requires the generic equivalent to have the same active ingredient, strength, dosage form and route of administration as the brand name product. They are almost identical, other than possibly some inactive ingredients. Generic Atorvastatin has been proven to be bioequivalent to Lipitor and should work just as well as the brand name product. 

Mevacor, on the other hand, does not have a generic equivalent. It is considered to be a therapeutic equivalent of Lipitor. A therapeutic equivalent drug may be in the same class of drugs and may treat the same condition in much the same way, but it is made up of different chemicals. 

Why does this distinction matter? When you give your pharmacist a prescription written by your doctor, it is considered both safe and legal for your pharmacist to dispense a generic equivalent drug for the brand name drug named on the prescription, unless your doctor specifically says no. And that is a good thing, because sometimes the cost of a generic equivalent drug is 80-85 percent lower than the brand name product. So you will get a product that is proven to work just as effectively as the brand name drug for significantly less money. 
However, your pharmacist cannot dispense a therapeutically equivalent drug in place of a brand name drug. Using our example, if you have a prescription for Lipitor, your pharmacist may offer you generic Atorvastatin, but you would need a new prescription from your doctor if you wanted to switch to Mevacor. 
As a patient, you can rest assured that generics are safe. Generic drug recalls are rare, and the FDA closely regulates generic drug producers to protect us from quality issues and adverse effects. For more information, visit fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou.

John McMillin is president of United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland. Email him at [email protected]


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