Pfizer maneuvers to protect Lipitor from generics

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Lipitor is so valuable that Pfizer is practically paying people to keep taking its blockbuster cholesterol medicine after generic competition hits the U.S. market this week.

Pfizer has devised discounts and incentives for patients, insurers and companies that process prescriptions that will, at least for the next six months, make the brand name drug about as cheap as or cheaper than the generics. Pfizer also has spent tens of millions of dollars this year on marketing to keep patients on Lipitor, which loses patent protection Wednesday.

Normally when a drug’s patent ends, generic rivals grab nearly all its market share in a year or less, and the original maker quietly shifts focus to its newer products.

Pfizer Inc., the world’s biggest drugmaker, is not giving up that easy on the best-selling drug in history. Lipitor had peak sales of about $13 billion and still brings in nearly $11 billion a year, about a sixth of Pfizer’s revenue. With no new blockbusters to fill that hole, the company is making an unprecedented push to hang onto Lipitor revenue as long as possible.

Patients seem to buy into the logic.

“If I can get the name brand at the same price or for pennies more than the generic, I have no motivation to switch,” said Richard Shiekman, 59, who has been taking Lipitor for six years and credits the drug with sharply cutting his bad cholesterol. Shiekman, a wine and spirits importer from Redding, Conn., got a $4 copay card two weeks ago after his pharmacy sent an offer guaranteeing that price through December 2012.

Pfizer’s strategy is cunning and could become the new norm, as most other drugmakers also face generic competition to top-selling medicines and haven’t been coming up with replacements.

“People getting a month of lifesaving medicine for the price of a cup of Starbucks is … pretty impressive,” said Michael Kleinrock, a research director at data firm IMS Health.

Pfizer’s effort includes:

_Offering insured patients a discount card to get Lipitor for $4 a month, far below the $25 average copayment for a preferred brand-name drug and below the $10 average copay for a generic drug. Pfizer is promoting this heavily through ads, information distributed at doctors’ offices and its http://www.LipitorForYou.com site. Pfizer, based in New York, said Tuesday that sign-ups have exceeded its goals.

_Paying pharmacies to mail Lipitor patients offers for the $4 copay card and to counsel patients that Lipitor lowers bad cholesterol more than rival drugs and helps prevent heart attacks and strokes.

_Keeping U.S. marketing spending nearly level until the last minute, versus the typical two-thirds drop in a drug’s final year under patent. From July through September, Pfizer spent almost $90 million on doctor sales calls and free samples, about the same as a year earlier, according to Cegedim Strategic Data. Ads targeting patients fell about 60 percent to $19 million. All that will soon taper off.

_ Negotiating unusual deals with some insurance plans and prescription benefit managers, the companies that process prescription claims for insurers or employers, to block pharmacists from dispensing generic Lipitor. Pfizer is giving them rebates that bring their cost for Lipitor down to the price of a generic or slightly less _ if they agree to dispense only Lipitor for the six months before additional generic competition slashes prices. The move has generated some controversy and means many of the 3 million Americans taking Lipitor won’t be able switch to the generic.

Under those contracts, patients will pay either their plan’s standard generic copayment or just $4 _ the lowest copayment pharmacies at supermarkets and discounters such as Wal-Mart offer for the most widely used generic drugs.

While generic medicines work the same as brand drugs for nearly everyone, some patients prefer the brand.

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