If you are among the nearly 10 million Americans who take the popular cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor, get ready to save some money.
The U.S. patent on Lipitor expires today, allowing a generic version to be sold under its chemical name, atorvastatin. The look of the pills — their size, shape, markings and color — may also change, but so will the price. Insurance co-pays for the generic version are expected to drop from $30 to $50 per prescription to $3 to $10.
Without insurance, Lipitor, the world's largest selling drug, costs $115 to $160 a month, depending on dosage. Atorvastatin should cost 30 to 50 percent less.
And at least for a while, you may pay the cheaper price while still getting the brand name. In an unusual move, drugmaker Pfizer, eager to maintain brand loyalty to its most profitable product, is devising discounts and incentives that could keep the brand-name drug as cheap as generics for the next six months.
"It has been a tremendously successful product; it made $100 billion for Pfizer," said Dr. John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center, a research division of Consumer Reports magazine. "We now enter the phase where consumers get some return on their investment. It's their time to benefit."
Some insurance plans have temporarily arranged to continue patients on brand-name Lipitor at the generic price, while others are moving patients immediately to the generic version.
Lipitor has long been the first drug of choice for treating patients with seriously high LDL cholesterol and a history of heart attack or acute heart disease.
"We use Lipitor in patients who need a 30 percent or greater reduction in LDL," said Dr. Charles Lambert, medical director of Florida Hospital Pepin Heart Institute in Tampa and professor of medicine at the University of Florida. "But you can use alternative statins in most other patients, including generics."
Generic drugs must contain the same key ingredients as the brand-name drug, but the appearance and some inactive ingredients may be different.
Santa hopes that Lipitor's going generic will loosen Pfizer's hold on the statin market.
"We hope that this is the end of all the marketing around Lipitor and that consumers and physicians will be more open to the evidence we've been pointing to for years," said Santa.
"For the vast majority of people on a statin, Lipitor is no better than other generic statins that have been available for years for about $4 a month. They are just as good as Lipitor for 90 percent of people on a statin."
Less costly alternatives include lovastatin, pravastatin and simvastatin, but they may only be appropriate for patients whose LDL cholesterol is not high.
Will the generic version of Lipitor work as well as the original? Lambert said that most of the time, there is no difference. "Concern arises, however, when production goes overseas, where manufacturing facilities are not under the direct control of the FDA. Based on past experience, that's a real concern.''
Initially, two drugmakers will produce generic Lipitor: Watson Pharmaceuticals of New Jersey and Ranbaxy Laboratories in India.
Limited generic competition is permitted in the first six months after a drug's patent expires. After May 2012, other generic versions of Lipitor are expected to hit the market, which may lower prices even further.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Irene Maher may be reached at email@example.com.