There could soon be some good news for consumers weary of soaring health care costs: The patents for several best-selling medications will expire this year, clearing the path for lower-cost generics to take their place.
According to IBIS World, an industry research firm, some of the blockbuster drugs whose patents expire this year are the cholesterol buster Lipitor; the antipsychotic Zyprexa; the antibiotic Levaquin; Concerta, a drug used to treat attention deficit disorder and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder; and Protonix, an antacid. Together, these drugs brought in more than $10 billion in sales in 2010.
Pfizer, the manufacturer of Lipitor, managed to hold off competition until later this year. Ranbaxy, an India-based pharmaceutical company, agreed to delay release of its generic version of Lipitor until Nov. 30. According to its website, Ranbaxy will have the exclusive right to sell its drug in the U.S. for six months.
Experts say when generic versions of these drugs make it to market, pharmaceutical companies could face billions in potential losses, while consumers could save tens of billions of dollars a year.
"Studies suggest that the average cost of generics is 71 percent less than the cost of brand-name drugs," said James Zhang, associate professor and director of the Pharmaceutical Economics and Policy Research Program at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Pharmacy in Richmond, Va. "Studies also suggest that generic drug use accounts for 63 percent of drug use."
Felicia D'Ambrosio says she hopes there will someday be a generic alternative for her medication, NuvaRing, the monthly contraceptive ring. She'll be waiting for a while, since the drug's patent doesn't expire until 2018.
In the meantime, as a freelance writer with no insurance coverage, she's struggling to pay $100 a month for NuvaRing. She suffered adverse side effects from oral contraceptives, which is why she uses this medication.
"Based on the experience I've had with other generic drugs, it would be significantly cheaper and would make a world of difference," she said. "I'm trying to figure out how to afford the medication now."
Until additional lower-cost alternatives become available, D'Ambrosio said people should do research and try to find assistance programs that might help them get certain medications at lower cost. She applied to a program through Pennsylvania's Maternal and Family Health Services, which provides free or low-cost birth control and some women's care to those who qualify.
"Use any resources you can," she said.
"A generic is about 30 percent cheaper at first and then when lots of copies are made, they will be about 80 percent cheaper or even less expensive than that," said Julie Donohue, assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, generic drugs must contain the same active ingredients as its counterpart brand name drug. The difference, Donohue said, often lies in the size, shape or color of the pill or tablet.
Despite the similarities between branded drugs and generics, many consumers and physicians are reluctant to trust them.