Chicago — Hailed for effectiveness at lowering cholesterol, the family of drugs known as statins in recent years has been the most costly brand-name prescription group for U.S. consumers and employers.
Retailing between $2 and $5 a pill, statins accounted for $16 billion in U.S. sales last year - the leading class of brand-name drugs - and represented 6.4 percent of U.S. prescription sales, according to research firm IMS Health.
Now cholesterol pills are going on sale.
The second-most widely prescribed statin, Zocor, is expected to be available late next month as a generic. The third-most prescribed brand statin, Pravachol, became available as a cheaper generic, pravastatin, earlier this month.
The availability of generic versions could mean annual savings on co-payments of more than $200 a year depending on a person's prescription benefit plan, analysts say. And monthly drug co-payments could be cut in half to between $5 and $10 on average for a generic statin to $20 to $40 a month or more for a brand.
"When a big branded drug loses patent protection, there is always a huge opportunity for cost savings," said Lynn Rossetto, a pharmacist with consulting firm Hewitt Associates, which advises employers how to save on their medical costs.
"The branded statins are around $100 or more for a month's supply," Rossetto said. "Oftentimes, more than one of these drugs fall among an employer's top (costliest) drugs."
There also may be ramifications for those who take the most widely used cholesterol drug, Lipitor.
While Lipitor has patent protection until 2011, doctors and pharmacists say the similarities in effectiveness between Lipitor and Zocor should give statin users an opportunity to switch to a generic and save $1 a pill or more at retail prices depending on dosage.
The emergence of the generic cholesterol drugs could have even greater meaning this year. That's because millions of seniors gained access to drugs in January under the Medicare health insurance program.
Already, health insurance plans and pharmacists are encouraging consumers to pick pravastatin, the generic.