Senators, Watson chief question Pfizer's Lipitor deals

Congress is casting a skeptical eye on Pfizer's ($PFE) bending-over-backwards effort to retain customers for Lipitor. Now that the cholesterol drug has generic rivals, Pfizer is offering discounts to patients and payers alike, aiming to keep a third of its megablockbuster's many billions in sales. Those discount deals reportedly include a sort of reverse substitution: Rather than pharmacists subbing generics for branded Lipitor, they're asked to sub the branded version for prescribed generics.

Despite the fact that Pfizer's pricing rivals that of generic versions, the arrangements have their share of detractors--and those detractors now include three U.S. senators, none of them strangers to Big Pharma. Sens. Charles Grassley, Max Baucus and Herb Kohl, who've all played a thorn-in-the-side role with drugmakers at one time or another, are asking Pfizer for details on its deals with 5 health companies, The New York Times reports.

"We need to take a close look to ensure we're protecting both taxpayer dollars and access to the medicine patients need," Senator Max Baucus, the chairman of the Finance Committee, said in a statement.

Pfizer maintains that it intends to offer Lipitor to payers and patients "at or below the cost of the generic" during the first 6 months of copycat competition. Spokesman MacKay Jimeson told the NYT that the senators' questions stem from "incomplete or incorrect information," and that health plans are free to choose whether to participate in the Lipitor discounts.

One potential loser from Pfizer's aggressive tactics is, of course, its authorized-generic partner Watson Laboratories ($WPI)--and CEO Paul Bisaro sounds none too happy about it. On CNBC's Squawkbox, Bisaro criticized the company's approach, citing a somewhat less-than-persuasive reason: patient confusion. The way Bisaro tells it, the generics industry has finally gotten the copycat-drugs-lower-healthcare-costs message, and Pfizer's discounting undermines it. "Unfortunately what's happening now is that people are being told that they can't even get the generic ... because the brand is being sold at a lower price than the generic," Bisaro said (as quoted by Forbes). "We don't need that confusion in the marketplace."

- see the statement from Kohl's office
- read the NYT coverage
- get more from Forbes