Switching Drugs

With Prilosec's 20-year patent expired, its days as an exclusive heartburn drug are seriously numbered. Generic versions that'll sell for half the price are on the horizon. But Prilosec's maker isn't giving up on its billion dollar purple pill without a fight. It's trying to block the generics in court, and it's launched Plan B.

"They are switching patients as fast as they possibly can to Nexium," said Bradley Cameron of Business for Affordable Medicine.

Nexium is the new Prilosec. Made by the same company -- AstraZeneca -- Nexium has something Prilosec doesn't: a brand new patent. There won't be a cheaper generic alternative for Nexium for years to come.

Then there's the popular allergy drug Claritin. With its patent up in December, Claritin's maker has come out with a new version that doesn't have a generic alternative -- Clarinex.

When a patent's up on a blockbuster drug, more and more drug makers are turning to this last-ditch strategy to keep from losing business to cheaper generics: they churn out a new version of their drug...then launch a campaign to convince patients it's better so they'll switch, reports CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson in the second of a two-part series.

The makers of Clarinex say their new drug is approved to treat more kinds of allergies than Claritin. And AstraZeneca insists Nexium "has higher rates of healing for certain lesions (than Prilosec) and reduced heartburn symptoms faster. We're trying to improve patient care; we made a more effective drug."

But Dr. Ken Frisof disagrees. "The clinical evidence that these drugs are better is just not there."

Frisof is a family practice doctor and health care advocate who argues the new drugs aren't better -- just more expensive. If a patient "can afford the extra money to be in with the "in" crowd with the latest drug, you know, I'm willing to switch them to it. If they want my opinion, I wouldn't."

But Frisof says many doctors do switch patients --.in large part because drug makers cut off freebies of the old drug and bombard doctors with free samples of the new one -- which patients are eager to have.

"From the doctor's point of view he's helping his patient out in the short term. But then the patient gets used to that drug, and then later on when there are no free samples, has an unsupportable bill."

If the numbers are any indication, most people have no idea that changing to the new medicine ultimately robs them of the chance at a cheaper generic. Nexium has only been on the market for two months and more than a third of Prilosec users have already made the switch.