Experts predict that more drugmakers will do the same for some of their big sellers, as the companies weather big revenue drops from an unprecedented wave of top-selling drugs whose patents are expiring. The trend is the latest attempt by drugmakers to hold on to business at a time when they are increasingly under siege. Drug companies including Pfizer, Merck & Co. and Bristol Myers-Squibb Co. are squeezed by rising research costs, the weak global economy and pressure from Europe, China and elsewhere to reduce drug prices.
Lipitor, once the world's top-selling drug, provides a window into the use of coupons.
A month's supply of brand-name Lipitor costs about $175 without insurance. For insured patients, the co-payment is typically $25 to $50, well above the average co-payment of about $10 a month for most generic drugs.
Under Pfizer's Lipitor for You coupon program, Pfizer absorbs up to $75 of the patient's out-of-pocket cost. Insured patients pay only $4 a month, unless their co-payment is higher than $79 a month. Uninsured patients get the $75 off each prescription and then pay the remaining $100 or so.
While the deal slashes Pfizer's profit, the company still makes more money than it would if all its customers defected from Lipitor to a generic. Ian Read, CEO of New York-based Pfizer, recently said the strategy on Lipitor alone brought the company hundreds of millions of dollars in extra profit.
The coupons throw a wrench into insurers' strategy of getting as many patients as possible to take generic drugs, which account for about 80 percent of all prescriptions filled in the United States.
A study late last year by the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, a trade group for prescription benefit managers, estimated that co-pay coupons could raise prescription drug spending by $32 billion over the next decade.
Many insurers are fighting back.
Express Scripts Holding Co., the largest U.S. prescription benefit management company, says more than half the insurance plans it services have policies requiring patients to pay an extra fee for staying on the brand-name drug. With the advent of coupons, more insurers are likely to institute similar policies, says Everett Neville, head of pharmaceutical strategies at Express Scripts, which processes prescriptions for about 100 million Americans.