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FDA Approves a New Hepatitis Treatment, but it Comes With a Startling Price Tag

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced today that it has approved a new prescription drug to treat chronic hepatitis C(genotype 1). The drug is called Harvoni and it is made by Gilead Sciences. It is the first combination pill approved to treat the disease, and is also the first approved treatment for the disease that does not also require the administration of interferon or ribavirin. The drug works by interfering with certain enzymes that the hepatitis C virus requires in order to multiply. The hope is that using this sort of one-pill treatment for the disease will simplify treatment. It is a laudable goal, as simpler treatment regimens could ultimately results in less medical malpractice and better outcomes for patients, assuming that the simpler treatment regimen is safe.

Additional Purported Benefits of the Drug

In addition to being a one-pill solution, Harvoni could also decrease the overall duration of treatment for Hepatitis C, reports The New York Times. For a large number of patients it would also make it possible for them to be treated exclusively with an oral medication for the first time. Finally, it is cheaper than an already existing treatment called Sovaldi, also made by Gilead Sciences. However, that does not mean by an stretch of the imagination that Harvoni will be cheap.

The Cost of Hepatitis C Treatments Including Harvoni

Earlier this year we reported on the extraordinary cost of Sovaldi. It costs $1,000 a pill, or $84,000 for the twelve weeks worth of pills needed for treatment in most cases. These numbers create a serious issue for both insurers and for state legislatures that fund Medicaid. Unfortunately individuals who are living in poverty are disproportionately affected by hepatitis C, as is the prison population, so ultimately taxpayers can wind up paying these astronomical costs. But Gilead claims that Harvoni will help alleviate cost concerns as it is cheaper.
However, its only cheaper sometimes.

According to The New York Times’ report, the wholesale price for a 12-week course of Harvoni is actually more expensive than Sovaldi, coming in at a whopping $94,500 for a 12-week course of the drug. However, the savings come in to play because many patients will only have to take Harvoni for 8 weeks, bringing the cost of treatment down to $63,000. Still, not exactly what most tax payers would call “cheap.”
Gilead defends the price of the drug, saying, “We believe the price of Harvoni reflects the value of the medicine…Unlike long-term or indefinite treatments for other chronic diseases, Harvoni offers a cure at a price that will significantly reduce hepatitis C treatment costs now and deliver significant health care savings to the health care system over the long term.” It is true that these drugs, while extremely expensive, are cheaper than treatments like liver transplants and long term hospitalizations. But they are still expensive enough that they are resulting in insurers and government health care providers rationing care, so that basically people have to become extremely ill before the agencies will pay for these treatments.

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