Many of the one million Coloradans with high cholesterol are about to save more than $100 a month, because the price is plummeting on the world’s best-selling drug.
Many of these people are spending roughly $115 to $187 a month on Lipitor to control their cholesterol and cut their chances of a heart attack. Many others are not filling their prescriptions because the medication is too expensive.
But now Pfizer’s patent is expiring, and the generic version called atorvastatin is due on the market Nov. 30. Health industry analysts expect the price to drop by a third immediately. Within six months, they say it could drop as low as $5 for a month’s supply.
That could save billions of dollars for American patients, insurers and taxpayers, who spent more than $7 billion on Lipitor last year, according to analyst IMS Health.
Lipitor is currently the top-seller among anti-cholesterol drugs, called statins. These medications “are the penicillin of heart disease. They save lives, get people out of the hospital and improve the quality of life,” said Dr. Thomas Haffey, governor of Colorado’s chapter of American College of Cardiology.
“[These medications]” are the penicillin of heart disease. They save lives, get people out of the hospital and improve the quality of life.”
– Cardiologist Dr. Thomas Haffey
Statins lower cholesterol, which hardens arteries and can cause blockages and heart attacks. They also are used to reduce blood pressure, another risk factor for heart problems.
Haffey sees patients in his office every day who are choosing to go without cholesterol medication because they can’t afford them.
“They often make tough decisions about whether they eat or whether they take the medicines,” he said.
Lowering the cost of statin drugs like Lipitor, Haffey says, certainly will help the fight against heart disease. Patients who have been going without the drug because of the expense may change their minds when they see its new bargain price.
“Any time you can reduce the costs of quality health care, we certainly are happy and encouraged about that,” he said.
Some Coloradans who can afford Lipitor have been put off by the high cost. The Blaney brothers are among them.
Peter Blaney of Monument and Marshall Blaney of Aurora have both been diagnosed with chronic high blood pressure. Their health insurance policies don’t cover prescription drugs. Peter Blaney – who describes himself as frugal – has resisted taking Lipitor because it’s expensive. “But now that it’s going generic, I’m making it my New Year’s resolution,” he said.
Meanwhile, Marshall Blaney says he currently buys a higher-strength statin drug for a few dollars more than his prescription strength, and cuts the pills into four pieces down to his correct dosage.
“If you buy a tablet that’s four times as strong, that’s easy to divide into four,” he said. “Then you’ve pretty much cut the cost of the prescription into a fourth.”
Cardiologist Haffey doesn’t recommend splitting pills. But many physicians help their patients deal with the high cost of medicine in this way.
Lipitor isn’t the first cholesterol-buster to go generic. Zocor, now sold under its generic name simvastatin, is a less powerful alternative to Lipitor, and another big seller, Haffey said. A third statin drug, AstraZeneca’s Crestor, which has not lost its patent, is the most powerful cholesterol-buster on the market, said Haffey.
In a recent conference call, Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Ian Read predicted their Lipitor sales will be cut in half next year. The price drop is expected to knock Pfizer from the world’s top-selling pharmaceutical company to third.
If past trends are any indication, the generic atorvistatin will likely dramatically outsell Lipitor in the first year.
IMS Health spokesperson Gary Gatyas says he saw it happen with the statin drug Zocor and its generic, simvastatin. “Once a drug loses patent, we traditionally see unit volumes increasing. Sales of brand names tend to fall.”
Pfizer is taking drastic measures to protect its investment. It is offering a coupon to cut copays on Lipitor for insured patients to as little as $4 a month. The coupon offer is good for a year and can be found at Lipitor’s website.
Pfizer also is considering further efforts to hold onto its pharmaceutical gold mine. It is looking into creating a version of Lipitor that can be sold over the counter, according to CEO Read.
That may take another two years, partly due to the regulatory process.
Pfizer has licensed the generic version of the drug to Watson Pharmaceuticals. Industry analysts predict the American company will take in more than $500 million in sales in its first six months from this one drug.
Meanwhile, an Indian-based company, Ranbaxy, has the right to sell the generic of Lipitor beginning on Nov. 30. But it has had trouble with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for violating manufacturing rules on other products. Whether Ranbaxy can sell on Nov. 30 may be a last-minute decision.
FDA spokeswoman Sandy Walsh declined to comment on whether a Ranbaxy version would be in pharmacies soon. She only said, “Our job is to make sure that these drugs are up to the gold standard.”
Patients may request either version from their pharmacy.