Angus Hepburn, of Beacon, N.Y., has been taking Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering drug, since 2009, after he had a heart attack. He credits the drug with helping him bring his cholesterol level down to a healthy level.
"I had blood work done yesterday, and my cholesterol levels are looking good," he said. "I'm on the drug for life."
Lifesaving as Lipitor may be, it's expensive. Hepburn, who has an employer-based health plan with pharmacy benefits manager MedCo Health Solutions, said he pays about $200 every three months in co-payments and deductibles to take the brand-name drug.
But Hepburn and the 8.7 million Americans who take Lipitor, which is in a class of drugs called statins, for their high cholesterol are in for a pleasant change. On Wednesday, the drug's patent expires, opening the market for cheaper, generic versions of Lipitor, which should lower costs for consumers by about 50 percent.
Lipitor has been a moneymaker for its manufacturer, Pfizer. In 2010 alone, the drug earned the company more than $5.3 billion in U.S. sales. Many patients have been eagerly awaiting the patent's expiration and the money it will save them on their prescriptions.
Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director of the New York University Women's Heart Program, said many of her patients have asked about the release of a generic Lipitor.
"They ask if the drug will be the same and are concerned about side effects," she said. "The side effects of the generic should be similar to Lipitor."
Hepburn said Lipitor's going generic is the best news he's heard in a while.
"If I want to stay alive, I've got to keep taking these things," he said. "You've just got to bite the bullet and pay the charges until something like this happens."
For patients currently taking Lipitor, here are answers to the questions that will inevitably arise when the Lipitor patent expires and the drug goes generic:
Will the generic version be the same as Lipitor? Although the new pill may look different and will cost less, doctors say the generic version of the drug, called atorvastatin calcium, will be basically the same as the brand version.
"The active component of the medication is atorvastatin and should give the same lipid lowering as Lipitor," said Goldberg. "The pill will look different due to the inactive components in the pill that are responsible for its shape and color."
To receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, generic drugs must contain the same active ingredients as their original patented counterparts. Edith Rosato, a pharmacist and chief executive officer of the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy, said consumers should remember that the lower cost of a generic drug doesn't mean that its quality is inferior to brand-name drugs.
"Generics are also FDA-approved and are safe and effective and are equivalent to the brand name products," she said.
When it comes to prescribing the drug, many doctors say it won't matter to them whether their patients want to switch to the generic or continue taking Lipitor. Some doctors report that patients taking Crestor, a statin made by Astra Zeneca, have requested to switch to the generic Lipitor.
"Whatever is the lowest cost and gets the LDL ["bad cholesterol"] down is OK," said Dr. Christopher Cannon, a cardiologists at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.