UnitedHealth to steer patients away from Vytorin, Zetia

More pressure on Merck's cholesterol franchise: UnitedHealth Group is doubling the co-pays on Zetia and Vytorin. Beginning July 1, patients will have to pay $50 to $60 for those cholesterol drugs--rather than the $25 to $30 they pay now. And UnitedHealth hopes that the change will push patients away from the two meds and toward less costly alternatives.

Sales of Vytorin and Zetia have been under pressure for some time, ever since a study showed that Vytorin--which combines Zetia and the now-gone-generic statin Zocor (simvastatin)--kept arteries no clearer than simvastatin did alone. That was 2007, and sales for that year amounted to $5 billion for the two drugs, Bloomberg reports. Last year, sales of both amounted to $4.3 billion.

Part of the problem is that, with simvastatin now widely available as a generic,  Vytorin now is lots more expensive compared with the statin drug, UnitedHealth says. "It's all about relative cost," UnitedHealth's Tim Heady tells Bloomberg. "It no longer makes much sense" to give Vytorin the lower co-pay. 

Merck says it's not too worried about the higher co-pay. "We remain pleased with our managed care access for Vytorin and Zetia," a spokesman tells Bloomberg. We'll have to wait and see how patients take it.

- read the Bloomberg piece