About Amy Umble:
Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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Lipitor? Where’s my generic?

One of Pfizer's ads for its $4 co-pay card for Lipitor.

When Lipitor’s patent protection ended on Nov. 30, my friend figured that he would soon be saving money. The generic version of the drug would be cheaper, he thought. He’d probably save at least $160 a year.

Yet that’s not what happened when he got his prescription filled recently at one of the Fredericksburg CVS stores. He didn’t get the generic version of Lipitor and didn’t save any money.

My friend, who asked that his name not be used, has high cholesterol and has been taking Lipitor for about four years. He’s in good company. The Los Angeles Times reported this week that more than 3.5 million people nationwide take Lipitor each day, making it the most prescribed drug in America.

The drug is a second-tier medicine on his United HealthCare insurance plan. If he goes to one of the local pharmacies, he pays $30 for a one-month supply. If he buys it through the mail, he pays $60 for a three-month supply.

Last week when he picked up his latest refill at CVS, he noticed that he had been given Lipitor again. He asked the clerk about it, and she replied, “It says we’re supposed to give you the brand name.”

A couple days later, he called the pharmacist at CVS to ask why he didn’t get the generic. The pharmacist confirmed that his doctor had specified that he get generics whenever possible. “I’m confused” was the only solace the pharmacist could offer.

Turns out that Pfizer, the manufacturer, is offering rebates to insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers if they continue to use Lipitor instead of atorvastatin, the generic equivalent. According to published reports, Pfizer wants to retain the revenue it gets from Lipitor as long as possible.

Patients can get in on these discounts by going to Pfizer’s website and signing up for its “Lipitor For You” program. They get a special card which allows them to buy a month’s supply of Lipitor for $4. My friend was not aware of Pfizer’s program but said he plans to sign up for it.

As for the lessons learned, he said he is considering switching pharmacies. He also took a swipe at those who fear a government takeover of our health care. “The insurance companies are running it now,” he said.

(Recent articles in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times about Pfizer’s efforts can be found here and here.)