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New hepatitis C wonder drug shakes up the health care industry


By Tony Pugh
McClatchy Washington Bureau
June 12, 2014

WASHINGTON — When the harsh side effects of his hepatitis C medication forced Joel Roth to stop treatments last year, the only hope for his ailing liver was Sovaldi, a new wonder drug by Gilead Sciences Inc. that would hit the market later that year.

In December 2013, Sovaldi won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Roth, of San Rafael, Calif., was placed on a 24-week treatment regimen. The cost: $168,000, or an eye-popping $1,000 per pill.

In the first quarter of 2014, 30,000 U.S. patients were treated with Sovaldi, generating a whopping $2.3 billion in sales for Gilead, of Foster City, Calif.

The company says Sovaldi’s price reflects its 90 percent-plus cure rate for hepatitis C and the savings that produces by cutting patients’ long-term treatment costs, which can include hospitalizations, surgeries and even liver transplants.

But private insurers, drug benefit managers, health care advocates and Medicaid officials say the drug’s steep price tag will drive up insurance premiums, limit patient access and squeeze the budgets of state Medicaid programs, which have a disproportionate share of hepatitis C patients.

Adding to the furor: Sovaldi costs far less in countries that regulate prescription drug prices. In Egypt, a full 12-week course costs only $900.

The controversy has made Sovaldi “Exhibit A” in the health industry’s growing unease about the rising cost, development and use of expensive specialty drugs to treat complex, chronic conditions. 

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