More than seven months after the patent expired on the expensive cholesterol-reducing drug Lipitor, many pharmacies have not cut their prices as anticipated.
A Colorado Public News phone survey of pharmacies across the state has found that a few pharmacies are charging cash-paying consumers between $18 and $48 per month for Lipitor and its generic equivalent, atorvastatin. However, most chain pharmacies are still charging well over $100 for both the brand name and the generic.
Lipitor has been the most popular medicine in America, and it cost consumers, their insurers and taxpayers more than $7 billion in 2010. An estimated 1 million Coloradans take Lipitor or something similar.Expiration of the patent, which was held by the drug giant Pfizer, allowed other companies to begin manufacturing the generic. The price was predicted to drop to as little as $5 a month by June.
The CPN survey, taken over the past several weeks, found the price as high as $153 for a one-month supply of the brand name Lipitor at a Fort Collins Rite Aid store. The generic version was priced at $112 at a Denver Walgreens.
But a drive to the central mountain town of Leadville finds the independent Sayer-McKee Drug Store offering the generic for just $20.46 for a one-month supply.
“We’re a small pharmacy in a small town,” said pharmacist and part owner Nancy Longwell. “So we get to know all of our customers. And then we start caring about them. You care what happens to them, you care about what they have to pay for stuff.”
Another independent, Orchard Pharmacy in Grand Junction, reported it charges less than $18 for a month’s supply of the generic atorvastatin.
Most chain pharmacies around Colorado charged higher prices, reporting prices in the range of $100 to $140 for Lipitor, and only slightly less for the generic.
Walmart was the exception. Several Walmart pharmacies – in Englewood, Pueblo and the eastern plains town of Lamar – quoted a price of about $48 for the generic.
In all cases, the quoted prices were for a one-month supply of 10 milligram-strength dose for cash-paying customers. Patients with insurance plans generally pay a price negotiated by their carriers.
In November, experts predicted the prices for consumers would quickly plummet as other companies entered the atorvastatin-producing marketplace. Indeed, Pfizer began offering coupons for $4-per-month prescriptions. However, as Colorado Public News’ findings indicate, patients who do not know about those coupons are still being charged on average far more than $100 a month when paying cash.
Dr. Bob Eckel, the director of the Lipid Clinic at University Hospital in Aurora, expressed frustration when hearing of the huge difference in pricing.
“We all want to find the best deal around, don’t we?” Eckel said. “But if patients have to call 15 pharmacies just to find the best price, that’s just not acceptable.
“When I’m hearing a six-fold difference in price at various pharmacies, we have a real concern.”
But many say it may take more time for lower prices on generics to kick in.
“We’re not going to really see the cheap prices until other companies can jump on board and begin producing their own [generic version of the drug],” said Laura Borgelt, the immediate past president of the Colorado Pharmacists Society. “Once that happens, then the atorvastatin fun begins.”
Joe Saseen, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Pharmacy, said some drug companies likely are still perfecting formulas, which must then be approved and the drugs manufactured. In addition, some pharmacies are still dispensing their older, more expensive stock. Saseen expects consumer prices will start to stabilize and decrease over the next six to 12 months.
“Once atorvastatin is so cheap, then everyone will use it,” predicted Saseen, who serves on the board of the National Lipid Association, which is dedicated to reducing deaths due to high cholesterol. Of the three statin drugs on the market – Crestor and Simvastatin are the other two – atorvastatin “works better and is easier to use,” he said. That means “there are less drug interactions and dose restrictions,” he said.
One other possible reason for the continued high prices has been alleged in federal court in New Jersey.
A lawsuit filed in early July claims that Lipitor’s creator, Pfizer, engaged in a conspiracy to delay less expensive versions from hitting the market, forcing pharmacies to pay millions more than they otherwise would have.Five large retail companies – including Walgreens, Safeway and the parent company of King Soopers – filed the antitrust lawsuit against Pfizer and Ranbaxy Laboratories, the company that had exclusive rights to sell the generic atorvastatin for the first six months after the expiration of the patent. The defendants have denied the allegations.
Other companies were allowed to start manufacturing the generic after June 1 but did not immediately do so.
Carol McKinley and Sarah Wolberg contributed to this report.