Three prominent senators are demanding that drugmaker Pfizer Inc. produce documents about its deals with insurers to get them to cover its cholesterol blockbuster Lipitor, rather than two generic versions just hitting drugstores.
Lipitor, the top-selling drug ever with nearly $11 billion in sales last year, got U.S. generic competition on Wednesday.
In an effort to retain as much of that revenue as possible for a while, Pfizer has offered big rebates to insurance plans and companies that process prescriptions _ if they require pharmacies to dispense brand-name Lipitor rather than generic copies for the next six months. Pfizer also is offering patients remaining on Lipitor discounts so that their copayment would be equal to or lower than what they pay for generics under their health plan.
Come next June, additional generic versions will go on sale, prices will plunge and most of Pfizer's Lipitor revenue is expected to vanish, along with these deals.
The unprecedented strategy has generated controversy and a couple of media reports claiming the deals would raise costs for health plan sponsors _ employers and taxpayers.
Pfizer, the world's biggest drug company, has repeatedly denied that, saying its program is designed to let patients who want to remain on Lipitor do so at no additional cost to themselves or their insurance plan sponsor.
The senators, citing a Nov. 11 New York Times report, have given the New York-based company until Dec. 21 to provide extensive documents on all deals to block access to generic Lipitor, known as atorvastatin. Those include all such agreements and communications and presentations about them.
The senators sent letters Wednesday to Pfizer CEO Ian Reade, as well as two health insurers, Coventry Health Care and UnitedHealth Group Inc., and three companies that manage prescription benefits for insurers and plan sponsors: Medco Health Solutions Inc., Express Scripts Inc. and Catalyst RX, a division of Catalyst Health Solutions Inc.
The letters, expressing "concern these arrangements will hinder access to generic drugs today and in the future," were signed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., as well as senior Finance Committee member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Special Committee on Aging Chairman Herb Kohl, D-Wis.
"Consumers and taxpayers foot the bill when drug benefit companies and insurers manipulate the marketplace to prevent access to generic drugs for millions of Americans. We hope that scrutiny into these business practices will restore fairness and open the gates to affordable prescription drug choices and tremendous cost savings," Kohl said in a statement.
It said the senators are concerned that prescription benefit managers and insurance companies "may charge health plan sponsors, including employers and Medicare Part D, full price for brand-name Lipitor ... while pocketing the discount from Pfizer."
The statement also raised concerns that such arrangements will become a trend, deterring generic drugmakers from devoting the time and money needed to get new generic medicines approved and increasing costs to Medicare, which now spends about $65 billion a year on drugs for senior citizens.
Pfizer spokesman MacKay Jimeson said the company is reviewing the letter and will respond soon.
He the senators' questions "are based upon an earlier article that contained incomplete and incorrect information about our Lipitor programs. Our intent is to offer Lipitor to payers and patients at or below the cost of a generic."
"Participation in Pfizer's programs by a health plan is entirely voluntary. It is not imposed on any plan either by Pfizer or their PBM," Jimeson added.