CREDIT: John Storey/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation
Solvadi, a new drug that can help combat hepatitis C, is being hailed as a “turning point” in the treatment of the liver disease. A new study into the drug treatment found that it cured hepatitis C in more than 90 percent of participants who were previously suffering from an advanced form of the virus. “It is fantastic. I am so excited for the patients. There is finally hope for their future,” the lead researcher said.
There’s just one problem. Solvadi, which is manufactured by Gilead Sciences Inc., is too expensive for most people to afford. It costs $84,000 over the course of 12 weeks of treatment — which works out to be a staggering $1,000 per pill.
That’s particularly concerning considering the fact that the people infected with hepatitis C are disproportionately low-income. More than half of the three million Americans who are living with the virus are veterans, prisoners, uninsured, or covered through Medicaid. So ever since Solvadi was officially approved at the end of December, lawmakers have been worried that it will end up being too big of a big taxpayer burden.
Last month, members of Congress sent a letter to Gilead asking the company to justify its high prices. Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) explained they’re concerned “a treatment will not cure patients if they cannot afford it.”
And they’re not the only ones raising concerns. Insurers are also expressing frustration with a system that requires them to pay dearly for breakthrough drugs. Kaiser Permanente, one of the country’s biggest not-for-profit plans, has called Solvadi’s price “outrageous.” Industry officials told the San Francisco Chronicle that “there’s some component of this that’s touched a nerve” and “the payer community is frustrated to the point to where they believe this could actually break the system.”
The controversy has stretched beyond the United States’ borders, too. About 150 million people around the world are infected with hepatitis C, and it’s an issue that’s more prevalent in developing nations. Those countries are working with Doctors Without Borders to secure a more affordable price for Solvadi. Last week, the World Health Organization called for a “concerted effort” to lower the price of the drug to ensure that it’s accessible to everyone who needs treatment.
Gilead officials have defended their pricing, pointing out that the drug will save money in the long run by curing people of the hepatitis C virus. Gregg Alton, the company’s executive vice president of corporate and medical affairs, recently said that Gilead is “very committed” to making sure that people can afford Solvadi, but also that “we think the price is fair. It’s a one-time cost that is your lifetime cost.”
On the other hand, liver specialists have expressed concerns that it’s possible some low-income people may die before they’re able to afford the pricey medication. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation has spearheaded several protests against Gilead, condemning the “unbridled greed of the pharmaceutical industry.”
Prescription drug prices are a persistent issue in the American medical industry, particularly because pharmaceutical giants often resist introducing more competition into the market. The cost of brand name medications has skyrocketed over the past several years, and struggling Americans have been forced to cut back on their medications because they can’t afford them. Meanwhile, Big Pharma companies are raking in big profits, even at expense of expanding access to life-saving drugs. Fortunately, there are some signs that a few Solvadi competitors may be on the horizon, which could eventually help drive down the cost.