It’s a little hard not to say “Oh, how the mighty have fallen” when a retailer announces that it will give away for free what was once the world’s top-selling drug. But for retailers, it also makes good business sense.
In what could symbolize the so-called “patent cliff” affecting the branded and generic drug industries, Midwestern mass merchandise chain Meijer announced earlier this month that it would provide, free of charge, generic versions of Pfizer’s cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor (atorvastatin) to patients with valid prescriptions in all of its 199 pharmacies, saying it would be the first retailer in the Midwest to do so. 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.”
When Walmart launched its $4 generics program in 2006, some critics dismissed it as a public relations stunt to drive foot traffic, but it looked like the mass merchandise retailer was onto something as it quickly spawned imitators across the country. A 2007 consumer poll by Wilson Health Information for the 2007 WilsonRx/Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmacy Satisfaction Digest found that 25% of respondents had purchased a $4 generic from Walmart or from one of the many imitators that the mass merchandise retailer quickly spawned, while a Walmart pharmacy district manager told Drug Store News in an August 2007 interview that prescription-unit business had increased by 50% in some stores thanks to the program, and OTC business had increased as well. A number of retailers have been giving away free drugs, such as antibiotics; but by giving away for free a drug that, according to IMS Health, experienced the fastest prescription growth and second-highest dollar growth during the 12-month period ended in June, Meijer is taking the idea behind $4 generics to the next level.
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 [Meijer] 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.”