GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — In what could symbolize the so-called "patent cliff" that an executive from healthcare market research firm IMS Health spoke of at a recent trade show, a regional mass merchandise chain is taking what used to be the world's top-selling drug and giving it away for free.
Meijer announced Tuesday that it would offer generic versions of Pfizer's cholesterol drug Lipitor (atorvastatin calcium) for free at all of its 199 pharmacies, saying it would be the first retailer in the Midwest to offer such a program. The program is the fourth free-drug program offered by the retailer over the last six years.
"We're pleased to announce that our customers will now be able to fill their generic cholesterol-lowering atorvastatin calcium prescriptions for free in all of our pharmacies," co-chairman Hank Meijer said. "In keeping with our commitment to provide low-cost solutions for the families we serve, the free cholesterol-lowering medication program is another way to help the customers who rely on our pharmacies."
Before it lost patent protection, in November 2011, Lipitor had sales exceeding $7 billion per year in the United States. Ranbaxy Labs was the first to launch a generic version when the drug's patents expired, and Ranbaxy's own market-exclusivity period expired in May of this year. At the National Association of Chain Drug Stores' Pharmacy and Technology Conference last month, IMS VP industry relations Doug Long said during a presentation that "We're in the teeth of the patent cliff," which refers to a period taking place over the next few years when a wave of expirations of several top-selling drugs' patents will occur, eventually leaving many therapeutic indications such as cholesterol heavily commoditized and dominated by multiple generics.
"This initiative will have a huge impact because the cost of pharmaceuticals is frequently a barrier to getting appropriate treatment," West Michigan Heart cardiologist and Spectrum Health Meijer Heart Center Cardiac Catheterization Labs director David Wohns said. "The biggest way to reduce the risk of heart disease comes from treating cholesterol. To have that drug available for free has the ability to impact countless lives."