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MIAMI (CBS4) – Cheaper generic versions of the popular cholesterol lowering drug Lipitor will soon be hitting the market.
The Food and Drug Administration only gives pharmaceutical companies exclusive right to a drug for a certain period of time before opening it up to other companies. Pfizer Inc.’s patent protection for Lipitor expires on Wednesday.
Prescribed to more than 17 million people, Lipitor is so valuable to Pfizer that the company is practically paying people to keep taking it after generic versions hit the shelves this week. Pfizer has devised discounts and incentives for patients, insurers and companies that process prescriptions that will, at least for the next six months, make the brand name drug about as cheap as or cheaper than the generics.
Pfizer also has spent tens of millions of dollars this year on marketing to keep patients on Lipitor.
Normally when a drug’s patent ends, generic rivals grab nearly all its market share in a year or less, and the original maker quietly shifts focus to its newer products. Pfizer, the world’s biggest drugmaker, is not giving up that easy on the best-selling drug in history. Lipitor had peak sales of about $13 billion and still brings in nearly $11 billion a year, about a sixth of Pfizer’s revenue. With no new blockbusters to fill that hole, the company is making an unprecedented push to hang onto Lipitor revenue as long as possible.
Patients seem to buy into the logic.
“If I can get the name brand at the same price or for pennies more than the generic, I have no motivation to switch,” said Richard Shiekman, 59, who has been taking Lipitor for six years and credits the drug with sharply cutting his bad cholesterol.
Shiekman got a $4 copay card two weeks ago after his pharmacy sent an offer guaranteeing that price through December 2012.
Pfizer’s strategy is cunning and could become the new norm, as most other drugmakers also face generic competition to top-selling medicines and haven’t been coming up with replacements.
“People getting a month of lifesaving medicine for the price of a cup of Starbucks is … pretty impressive,” said Michael Kleinrock, a research director at data firm IMS Health.
Pfizer’s effort includes:
—Offering insured patients a discount card to get Lipitor for $4 a month, far below the $25 average copayment for a preferred brand-name drug and below the $10 average copay for a generic drug.
—Paying pharmacies to mail Lipitor patients offers for the $4 copay card and to counsel patients that Lipitor lowers bad cholesterol more than rival drugs and helps prevent heart attacks and strokes.
—Keeping U.S. marketing spending nearly level until the last minute, versus the typical two-thirds drop in a drug’s final year under patent. From July through September, Pfizer spent almost $90 million on doctor sales calls and free samples, about the same as a year earlier, according to Cegedim Strategic Data. Ads targeting patients fell about 60 percent to $19 million. All that will soon taper off.
— Negotiating unusual deals with some insurance plans and prescription benefit managers, the companies that process prescription claims for insurers or employers, to block pharmacists from dispensing generic Lipitor. Pfizer is giving them rebates that bring their cost for Lipitor down to the price of a generic or slightly less — if they agree to dispense only Lipitor for the six months before additional generic competition slashes prices. The move has generated some controversy and means many of the 3 million Americans taking Lipitor won’t be able switch to the generic.
Under those contracts, patients will pay either their plan’s standard generic copayment or just $4 — the lowest copayment pharmacies at supermarkets and discounters such as Wal-Mart offer for the most widely used generic drugs.
Pfizer is also continuing assistance programs that subsidize uninsured patients wanting Lipitor, which costs about $115 to $160 a month, depending on dosage. Generic Lipitor, called atorvastatin, should cost 30 percent to 50 percent less.
Patients could save even more by taking other generic drugs in the same class that have been on sale for several years: pravastatin (Pravachol) and simvastatin (Zocor). But they’re not as potent as Lipitor, the key reason its sales have held up.
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