For 17 years after its approval as a cholesterol-lowering drug, Lipitor was the best-selling branded medicine in the history of the pharmaceutical industry and a goldmine for Pfizer.
In the two years since it came out of patent, the profits of the US-based corporation were halved when cheaper generic versions of the life-saving drug were produced by other companies. Not surprisingly, after years of paying through the nose for this and other costly drugs, Irish patients have been waiting for less pricey ones to be introduced here.
The green light was finally given by the Government yesterday signalling that the price of the most commonly prescribed drug in the State is finally coming down. However, given this country’s appalling track record on prices, leading to its deserved image as rip-off Ireland, a sceptic could be forgiven for raising questions.
Lingering doubts about the effectiveness of this initiative are fully justified because while the prescription of generic drugs has almost doubled here since 2010, we have yet to see substantial savings either for the State or the beleaguered cash-paying patient. According to an ESRI report, GPs in Ireland generally prescribe more patented drugs and fewer generic kinds than doctors in other EU countries. Crucially, the Government think-tank found non-branded drugs are still far more expensive in Ireland than elsewhere in the EU.
Successive governments have been notoriously reluctant to take any action likely to be construed as damaging the pharmaceutical industry. This despite the fact that the State is picking up a drugs bill that runs to almost €2 billion a year because of its traditional preference for using branded products.
The administration’s reluctance is perhaps understandable because this industry directly employs nearly 25,000 people, over half of them third-level graduates and researchers, with a further 24,500 providing services to the sector. It would be hard to exaggerate the economic significance of the industry both as an employer and revenue generator. In the past decade it has invested over €7bn here with a replacement value of €40bn, according to the IDA.
A major player in this league, Pfizer employs over 4,000 people at eight locations in Cork, Dublin and Kildare. Doubtless, that explains why it has taken the best part of two years for the powers-that-be to give the seal of approval to cheaper generic ‘statins’ as substitutes for expensive Lipitor.
In future, under the terms of this long-awaited move, the cholesterol drug atorvastatin will be cheaper to patients at chemists while, according to Health Minister James Reilly, the HSE will spend 70% less on drugs for medical card patients, a truly enormous saving by any yardstick.
If all goes according to plan, it will indeed be a “good news story” for people using atorvastatin, as Dr Michael Barry of the HSE put it. He emphasised that the lower price regime would also have a significant impact on the amount paid out by non-medical card holders who stand to save €180 or €280 a year, depending on the amount prescribed.
The move to allow pharmacists to substitute a GP’s prescription for a branded drug with generic type is a long overdue and welcome development — provided they do it. With 30 branded products accounting for half the HSE’s drug bill, the faster this scheme is rolled out the better it will be for patients and for Ireland’s cost-ridden health service.
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