TRENTON, N.J. – Lipitor is so valuable that its maker, Pfizer Inc., is practically paying people to keep taking the blockbuster cholesterol medicine after generic competition hits the U.S. market 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, which loses patent protection today.
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.
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. Pfizer is promoting this heavily through ads, information distributed at doctors’ offices and its www.LipitorForYou.com site. Pfizer, based in New York, said Tuesday that sign-ups have exceeded its goals.
• 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.
While generic medicines work the same as brand drugs for nearly everyone, some patients prefer the brand.
“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.