Generic Lipitor hits the shelves

One of the most popular drugs in America — cholesterol-lowering Lipitor — just became available as a generic.

That’s a boon to those who have to pay more out of pocket when buying a name brand instead of generic drugs.

“I’m excited about Lipitor being available as a generic medication,” said Dr. James Lee, an internal medicine physician at The Everett Clinic, adding that he believes many patients will benefit from the generic, since Lipitor is such an effective drug.

Consumers who choose to remain on Lipitor instead of switching to the generic version, known as atorvastatin, will likely end up paying more out of pocket.

For example, most Premera Blue Cross members who choose Lipitor will pay their usual prescription co-pay, plus the difference in cost between Lipitor and the generic, according to the insurance group’s spokeswoman, Amy Carter.

Just how much they’ll end up paying depends on the specifics of their particular health insurance plan, she said.

Lipitor was first introduced in 1977 and has been prescribed to more than 17 million patients since. It has been a blockbuster, in part because of its ability to battle the toughest cholesterol cases.

Nationally, nearly 9 million Americans are taking Lipitor. Among them are nearly 19,000 Washington patients insured through Premera.

Milligram for milligram, both Lipitor and its generic equivalent are much more potent than other statins, or cholesterol-fighting drugs, Lee said.

“I have many patients on other generic statins who have not reached their target cholesterol,” Lee said. “These patients will benefit greatly from switching to Lipitor or its generic equivalent.”

Many patients currently are on other, cheaper, generic cholesterol-lowering prescriptions.

For example, Group Health has dispensed 600,000 prescriptions for generic Zocor in the past year and about 65,000 for Lipitor.

Patients who’ve been anxiously awaiting the generic Lipitor might have to wait a little longer. Although it’s being shipped to area pharmacies, it could take a while before it’s widely available.

And the big savings consumers expect by using generic instead of the name-brand version? It could take about a year to see the most dramatic savings, said Dr. Robert Bettis, a family physician at Edmonds Family Medicine.

In part that’s because Pfizer, Lipitor’s manufacturer, has been offering coupons to make the name-brand prescription more affordable, he said.

“They were trying to get as many people on brand-name Lipitor as possible before the changeover,” Bettis said. “I would anticipate they’ll try to keep the price up as long as they can until pressure from competition will force them to lower the price.”

So it could be a while before patients see a big price drop. He tells patients: Expect some delay.

The Everett Clinic received initial shipments of generic Lipitor on Thursday.

“You may see a shortage of the generic in the not-too-distant future,” said Nathan Lawless, a manager in the organization’s pharmacy.

One company, New Jersey-based Watson Pharmaceuticals, has exclusive rights to manufacture the generic drug for six months, he said.

“The price between the generic that Watson will sell us and Lipitor is miniscule — that’s normal,” Lawless said. “We usually expect about a 10 percent drop when the generic first comes to market.”

By the second quarter of next year, Lawless expects other manufacturers, which are waiting for the six-month moratorium to pass, to jump into the market.

“There’s certainly room for a lot of players,” he said. “Next year is when we’ll see it,” he said of the expected larger price reductions.

The wait could pay off. Price saving on generic over brand-name drugs can be five to 10 fold, Lawless said.

Consumers often ask, but shouldn’t worry, about using generic rather than brand-name drugs, he said. Some 87 percent of all medications prescribed at The Everett Clinic are generic.

“To me that says our physicians believe in generics and use them whenever they can,” Lawless said.

The numbers are even greater at Group Health, where about 92 percent of patients on cholesterol-lowering drugs are on generics, said Jim Carlson, the organization’s pharmacy director. These include generic Zocor, the Lipitor competitor.

Generics are closely regulated by the Federal Food and Drug Administration, Lawless said. In addition, Washington has a generic-substitution law that requires generic manufacturers to meet certain specifications of the brand-name product, he said.

“We hear anecdotally that generics aren’t good,” Lawless said. Economics, though, often play a role in consumer’s choices.

“My mom doesn’t believe in generics, although now she’s on a fixed income, she has discovered generic products,” Lawless said.

Most patients who once bought brand-name drugs end up switching to generics because they realize how much in additional costs they’ll pay if they don’t make the change, Lee said.

And with Lipitor, there’s really no reason not to make the switch, he said.

“For the majority of patients, switching to generic Lipitor lowers their costs and is equally as effective in managing their cholesterol.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com.

Generic Lipitor Q&A

Q: Is generic Lipitor available now?

A: Shipments of atorvastatin just began arriving at pharmacies this week. There could be some initial shortages.

Q: Will it be a lot cheaper, like other generic drugs?

A: Prices are expected to drop, but the big savings aren’t expected until next year, when manufacture of the generic version is opened up to more than one company. At that time, the price could drop by half.

Q: Will the cholesterol-lowering effects of the drug be the same, regardless of whether it’s the generic or name brand version?

A: Yes. Doctors say the generic version can safely be used.

Q: Can patients still choose to use brand-name Lipitor?

A: In most cases, yes, but consumers will probably have to pay significantly more to do so.

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