Blockbuster Drugs That Will Go Generic Soon

Once a drug loses patent protection, cheaper generics quickly capture 80 percent of prescriptions.

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Healthcare costs have been rising faster than overall prices, but some prescription-drug relief is on the way. Over the next few years, an abnormally large number of blockbuster drugs are scheduled to lose their patent protection, opening the doors to cheaper generic drugs.

Already, generics have become the dominant branch of the prescription-drug family. According to its annual study of U.S. medicine use, the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics recently reported that generics accounted for 78 percent of all prescriptions last year.

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When a branded drug is joined in the market by its generic equivalent, prices fall rapidly and sharply. "Over 80 percent of a brand's prescription volume is replaced by generics within six months of patent loss," according to the IMS report.

Last year, the average co-pay for a generic drug prescription was $6.06, while the average co-pay for a brand-name drug prescription was about four to six times higher, depending on the type of branded drug being prescribed.

Medco Health Solutions, a large provider of pharmacy services, provided U.S. News with a list of the major patent expirations set to occur during the remainder of 2011 and 2012. The biggest drug set to lose protection this year is Lipitor, the cholesterol-reducing medication, which goes off patent in November. Next year, several big drugs will go generic, including Actos, Plavix, Seroquel, and Singulair (see details below).

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Patented drugs with large sales have generic makers lined up to move quickly into the market when patents expire, notes Medco's chief financial officer, Rich Rubino. "For the [large] products that we're talking about, the generics will get their approval on the patent date," he explains.

Studies have found that people are better about staying on their prescriptions when taking less-expensive generic medications. "Half of the folks do not completely follow their doctors' orders," Rubino says. And the recession likely worsened this trend, as visits to doctors' offices dropped and people looked for ways to skimp on medical expenses. "When people were watching their pennies more closely, we certainly saw a higher utilization of generics," he says. "The investment needed to stay healthy is much lower."

Here are the major-brand drugs that will lose patent protection over the coming 20 months. For each drug, the information includes the date it comes off patent, the drug's generic name, its 2009 retail sales, and a brief description of the drug's treatment use, provided by Medco.

2011

May. Concerta (methylphenidate); $1.33 billion. Used for ADHD (attention deficit) in teens.

June. Levaquin (levofloxacin); $1.63 billion. An antibiotic used for treating bacterial infections.

October. Zyprexa (olanzapine); $1.97 billion. Used for treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

November. Lipitor (atorvastatin) ; $6.05 billion. Used for treating cholesterol.

2012

March. Lexapro (escitalopram); $2.56 billion. Used for treating depression.

March. Seroquel (quetiapine); $3.48 billion. This is an antipsychotic medication.

May. Plavix (clopidogrel); $4.56 billion. Used to prevent unwanted blood clots to avoid heart attacks and strokes.

July. Tricor (fenofibrate); $1.35 billion. Helps reduce cholesterol and triglycerides (fatty acids) in the blood.

August. Singulair (montelukast); $3.47 billion. Used for asthma and allergies.

August. Actos (pioglitazone); $2.78 billion. This is an oral diabetic medication.

September. Diovan (valsartan); $1.47 billion. See below.

September. Diovan HCT (valsartin/hydrochlorothiazide); $1.38 billion. These drugs are used for the treatment of hypertension.

Twitter: @PhilMoeller