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Cholesterol Drug Patent Expiration Could Mean Savings for Some Patients

The 20-year patent on the cholesterol-lowering drug, Zocor, expired this past Friday, opening the door to competition from cheaper, generic versions of the popular drug. But some lawmakers are accusing the drug's manufacturer of undercutting the competition.

Zocor is a big money-maker -- generating sales of about $4.5 billion per year for New Jersey-based drug manufacturer Merck.

Seventy one-year-old Frank Wolek, who began taking Zocor after suffering a heart attack, spends $125 a month for the life-saving medication. "It's my most expensive drug that I take."

But after June 23rd, Wolek will pay considerably less. "I think it's wonderful,” he says.

And pharmaceutical analysts predict prices for Zocor could drop faster than anticipated. Albert Rauch at the investment firm A.G. Edwards says that is because Merck is trying to keep its customers by selling Zocor for less than generic versions, such as Simvastatin.

"I think they could be very successful at keeping market share by lowering their price," said Rauch.

Some health plans, for example, will start offering their patients Zocor for about $10 a month, compared to the generic equivalent, which costs five times more. But New York Senator Charles Schumer accuses Merck of undermining the generic drug industry and wants the Federal Trade Commission to investigate.

"Not only will it drive the competition out of business,” said the senator, “but they will do it on drug after drug and within a few years we won't have generic drugs anymore."

But Merck, which expects to lose as much as $2 billion a year after the patent expires says it is doing nothing wrong. Ian Spatz is Merck's vice president for Public Policy. "What it is, is an attempt to compete and that is what we are doing. It is a marketplace change and we were the only company selling Zocor until Friday -- on Friday, there are three and we need to compete."

Dr. Steve Nissen, the lead cardiologist on a study of the effectiveness of drugs for combating heart disease says the patent expiration on Zocor could help a lot of patients.

"That has huge implications because, of the 36 million Americans who are eligible for cholesterol-lowering drugs, only about half of them are taking the drugs, and one of the reasons is cost," said Dr. Nissen.

Using generic drugs can mean big savings. According to the latest Consumer Reports, people who need medicine to lower their cholesterol can save up to $1800 a year by switching to generic drugs. Merck wants to make sure its customers don't have to.