Knight Ridder Newspapers
SAN JOSE, Calif. - As spring allergy sufferers start to pull out the Kleenex, they'll be reaching for their wallets a little less often this sneezing season.
In a big break for patients, the cost of a leading allergy medicine is falling amid a price war between brand-name and generic drug makers. Loratadine, the potent allergy-relief medication once sold only under the brand name Claritin, is going for as little as 9 cents a tablet. About a year ago, patients had to hand over about a dollar a pill.
Prices can vary widely, and patients used to the Claritin label may not recognize the generic versions of loratadine. But with the allergy season soon under way, doctors say, the savings are worth seeking out.
"The price is remarkably low," said allergy specialist Dr. Dale Umetsu, director of the Center for Asthma and Allergic Disease at Stanford University's Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital.
The price drop reflects ongoing changes in how loratadine drugs are made and dispensed, as well as how people pay for them.
Loratadine, once a prescription-only medication, has been a leading allergy drug since the mid-1990s. More than 10 percent of Americans suffer from seasonal allergies, according to medical statistics, and loratadine became the drug of choice for many by relieving allergy symptoms without causing drowsiness.
Claritin quickly became the top seller in U.S. and global allergy markets, with a market share of about 40 percent in 2000, according to drug research firm IMS Health. Manufacturer Schering-Plough pulled in $3.2 billion in sales from Claritin in 2001 - about one-third of the company's total sales that year - according to company figures.
In late 2002, Claritin became available over the counter. That made it easier for patients to get - but also cost many of them more.
Health insurers generally don't pay for over-the-counter drugs. Prices for Claritin were running about $1 a pill after the switch. People who were used to paying a small insurance co-pay of $5 or $10 for a month's supply of 30 tablets were suddenly paying three to six times more out of pocket.
"I went and took a look at it, and decided it wasn't worth it," said allergy sufferer Christopher Marler, 45, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., and works at a digital media start-up in San Francisco.
Then another big change for Claritin started to shift prices back in patients' favor. Schering-Plough's patent on loratadine expired around the time of the over-the-counter switch. Last summer, generic drug makers geared up to offer their versions. The generics - sold under names such as Alavert, AllerClear, and just plain Loratadine - contain the same amount of loratadine as Claritin and are driving down prices.
Brand-name Claritin has come down, selling for about 70 cents a pill. Drugstore chains Walgreens and Rite-Aid are offering their versions for about 25 cents a pill. At Costco, the membership-based chain of warehouse stores, pharmacy shelves offer 180 loratadine tablets for $15.99 - about 9 cents a tablet.
"You can get through the entire allergy season with just one package," said Dr. James Orlowski, chief of allergy care at Kaiser Permanente's Santa Teresa Medical Center in San Jose, Calif. At that price, he said, "it's lower than lots of people's co-pays were before."
The changes haven't been good news for Schering-Plough or other big allergy drug makers, who have seen sales dollars from prescription and brand-name allergy medicines fall. Schering-Plough's first shipments of over-the-counter Claritin, in the last quarter of 2002, brought the company $105 million in sales. In the same period of 2003, sales fell to $96 million, the company said in a financial report released last month.
But the timing couldn't be better for patients, whose symptoms are likely to worsen once the rains end and more pollen starts flying, said San Jose allergy specialist Dr. Alan Goldsobel.
"I'll have to take a look," said Marler, who has been buying a different allergy medication online and just started his spring sneezing ritual in California's mild climate last weekend.
Other patients have had questions about whether the generic versions are safe or effective, said Kerry Schwarz, a professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of California-San Francisco. Given the federal guidelines governing generic drugs, she said, they shouldn't worry.
"I took some generic Claritin myself last month and had no problem with it," Schwarz said. "It worked fine."
(c) 2004, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.