DEAR SAVVY SENIOR: I’ve heard that the drug Lipitor and a few other popular brand-name medications will soon be available in cheaper generic form. What can you tell me? — Frugal Senior

DEAR FRUGAL: It’s true. Generics for Lipitor and a slew of other brand-name drugs will soon be coming down the pipeline, and the savings to consumers will be significant. Here’s what you should know.

EXPIRING DRUG PATENTS

Over the next two years, the patents of many top-selling brand name drugs will be expiring, clearing the path for lower-cost generics to take their place. One of the biggest is the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor, which earned the pharmaceutical company Pfizer more than $5.3 billion in U.S. sales last year. The patent for Lipitor ends in November, so starting on Nov. 30, 2011, generic manufacturer Ranbaxy Laboratories will have the exclusive right to sell Lipitor’s generic (Atorvastatin) in the U.S. for six months. At that point, other generic drug makers can enter the market to sell it.

Some other prominent drugs facing patent expiration this year include: Protonix, the popular antiacid drug which went off patent in January and is now offered in the generic format Pantoprazole; Levaquin, the antibiotic drug whose patent expires in June; and Zyprexa, the antipsychotic drug which comes off patent in October.

In 2012, some popular drugs set to lose their patents include: Plavix, the anti-clot/blood thinning drug which is prescribed to prevent heart attack and stroke; the asthma and allergy drug Singulair; Seroquel, which is used to treat a variety of mental health issues from depression to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia; the Type 2 diabetes medication Actos; and Enbrel, which is prescribed for arthritis and psoriasis.

It is, however, important to note that the expiration of some of these drug patents doesn’t guarantee that less-expensive generic drugs will immediately become available. Pharmaceutical companies have methods they can employ to extend the patent and stave off generic competition.

CHEAPER GENERICS

When a brand name drug does finally come off patent, its generic substitute is usually only about 30 percent cheaper at first, but as more generic drug makers start manufacturing it, the costs can drop by as much as 90 percent. On average, generic drugs are about 70 percent cheaper than brand-name medications.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, generic drugs contain the same active ingredients, dosage and quality as their brand-name counterparts. The differences lie in the name (generic drugs are usually called by their chemical names), shape and color (U.S. trademark laws don’t allow generics to look exactly like the brand-name drugs).

If you’re currently taking an expensive brand-name drug, and aren’t sure if it’s available in generic form, ask your doctor or pharmacist or you can look it up online at sites like destinationrx.com. If there’s not a generic counterpart for your particular drug, find out if there’s a generic option available in the same class of medications that would work for you.

Many chains sell hundreds of generics for as little as $4 for a 30-day supply and $10 for a 90-day supply.

SAVVY TIP: If you’re having a hard time affording your medications, there are drug assistance programs. See benefitscheckup.org to find them.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.