What will happen when I need to refill my Lipitor prescription? Consumers can still get a Lipitor prescription filled at their pharmacies once the drug's patent expires. But whether they get the brand name drug or the generic will depend on what kind of health insurance plan they have. Some plans automatically require consumers to get less-expensive generic drugs, if they exist, while other plans leave it to consumers to decide if they want to pay higher co-payments for the brand-name drugs.
Tim Wentworth, group president of employer and key accounts for MedCo, said starting Wednesday, most of MedCo's clients will get the generic version of Lipitor. He said most other major health plans will likely have a similar strategy.
A spokesman for Medicare declined to comment on what patients under the Part D prescription drug plan can expect.
Another question remains about whether initial supplies of atorvastatin will be sufficient to meet demand from consumers who want to switch to the generic right away. Ranbaxy Laboratories, the manufacturer with exclusive rights to sell atorvastatin for the first 180 days of the patent expiration, did not respond to requests for comment about its initial supply of the drug.
Rosato said it often takes time for pharmacies to fill their shelves with generics, but consumers shouldn't worry about a major shortage of atorvastatin.
"The supply and demand issue is always hard to judge for a drug like Lipitor," Rosato said. "But it will get to a steady state eventually."
Experts say patients should check with their pharmacists about whether atorvastatin is available and covered by their health plans. They should also check with their doctors to learn if their prescriptions specify that they take Lipitor, and ask if a switch to the generic is possible.
How much money will I save by switching? Most experts say consumers can expect to pay about 50 percent less for atrovastatin as they did for Lipitor. Co-payments for Lipitor range from $25 to about $50, depending on a patient's health plan. Co-payments for the generic form of the drug will drop to $10.
"It's going to save a lot of people a lot of money," said Wentworth, noting that MedCo estimates that the generic version of Lipitor will save its clients and members a total of nearly $1 billion.
After the next 180 days, Ranbaxy's exclusive rights to sell the generic drug will expire, opening the door to even more manufacturers, which could drive prices down even further. But many experts say consumers will see the biggest price differences as soon as the drug goes generic on Wednesday.
What if I want to keep taking Lipitor? Some health plans allow patients to choose to stay on Lipitor and pay the difference between the brand and generic cost. Consumers should check on the policies of their health plans and their state regarding mandatory prescriptions of generic drugs.
Patients can get Lipitor directly from Pfizer. The company has set up a discount program called Lipitor for You, which will allow participants to sign up and receive a discount card to get Lipitor for $4 a month. Pfizer has negotiated with health plans to make the drug available at or lower than the rate of generic drugs for the next 180 days. The Associated Press reports that the company is also paying pharmacies to mail Lipitor patients offers for the $4 co-pay card and to counsel them that Lipitor lowers cholesterol more than other drugs.