Debate Over Price of Promising New Hepatitis C Drug Continues to Roil

The new drug Sovaldi, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in December, has brought fresh hopes of a cure for the estimated 3.2 million Americans with chronic hepatitis C, a disease that can ravage the liver. Results so far have shown the drug has life-saving potential.

But its price tag of $84,000 per treatment – or $1,000 a pill – has put it out of reach for many who suffer from the disease. The price alone has already had ramifications in Colorado, as Rocky Mountain PBS I-News has previously reported.


Faced with a $7.2 million bill after a short time of paying for Sovaldi, Colorado’s Medicaid program put the brakes on covering the drug early this year. Between late January and May, only four of the 43 Medicaid patients who applied to receive the drug received it.

“We absolutely, sadly, cannot afford to treat everyone with hepatitis C,” Dr. Judy Zerzan, the chief medical officer at the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, told I-News. She describes her department’s approach as “how do we figure out who are most critical to treat right now, and who will benefit from it?”

More recently, a report by The New York Times Aug. 7 introduced another element into price debate over Sovaldi, suggesting that the drug would be a "budgetary disaster" for the nation's state prison systems.

The Times quoted a study from the National Institutes of Health that found that more than 17 percent of the national state prison population was estimated to carry hepatitis C in 2006, a number far higher than the incidence of the disease found in the general population.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Denver, was among members of Congress who sent a letter to the pharmaceutical company in March demanding to know how Gilead reached its price tag for Sovaldi.

“Our concern is that a treatment cannot cure patients if they cannot afford it,” the legislators wrote.

Gilead spokeswoman Cara Miller told I-News that Sovaldi was priced to match the cost of prior regimens, and reduces the total cost of hepatitis C treatment when taking into account doctors’ visits and the costs of treating side effects.

Sovaldi “represents a finite cure, an important point to consider when comparing the price of a pill or bottle to the lifetime costs of treating a chronic disease,” Miller said in a statement.

Meanwhile, competitive drugs from other manufacturers are expected to impact the market in the future.

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