Pfizer’s Lipitor, a blood cholesterol lowering drug, is a popular one the among general population. However now that a generic competition for the drug has arrived in the market the company 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.
Lipitor loses patent protection Wednesday. 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. 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 effort to extend Lipitor’s revenue as long as possible.
“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 efforts include 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 co-pay for a generic drug. It will be paying pharmacies to mail Lipitor patients offers for the $4 co-pay card and to counsel patients that Lipitor lowers bad cholesterol more than rival drugs and helps prevent heart attacks and strokes. Pfizer is 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. The move has generated some controversy and means many of the 3 million Americans taking Lipitor won't be able switch to the generic.
“We want to make sure that patients who are currently taking Lipitor and want to continue … have the opportunity to do so,” said David Simmons, who heads Pfizer's Established Products business. He said research shows more than a third of patients want to stay on Lipitor. Pfizer also is 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.
Initially, two drug makers will produce generic Lipitor: New Jersey based Watson Pharmaceuticals, and India's Ranbaxy Laboratories. Limited generic competition is permitted in the first six months following expiration of a drug's patent. After May 2012, other generic versions of Lipitor are expected to hit the market, which may lower prices even further.
Watson Pharmaceuticals Inc. may be the biggest loser in this. It has a deal to distribute an “authorized generic” version manufactured by Pfizer but sold under Watson's brand, with Pfizer keeping an estimated 70 percent of the price. Watson CEO Paul Bisaro said he had thought Pfizer would retain about 25 percent of Lipitor users for the next six months, but now “it looks like it will be 40 to 45 percent.” Bisaro said that could reduce his company's anticipated profit next year. “This is sort of the new generation of brand protection,” he added.
India's Ranbaxy Laboratories is the only company besides Watson with the right to sell generic Lipitor in the U.S. for the next six months. But Ranbaxy has had repeated manufacturing quality problems, and it's unclear whether it will have the Food and Drug Administration's approval to ship its version come Nov. 30. However, Pfizer executives say they expect Ranbaxy to have a generic on the market.