Legislator Calls on HHS Secretary to Take Action Against Hepatitis C Drug Costs

Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) recently sent a letter to new Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar asking him to help make treatments more affordable for Americans with hepatitis C virus (HCV), according to a press release.

Under 28 US code, section 1428, Azar has the authority to utilize patented pharmaceuticals to serve the public good, which would help millions of Americans receive the costly treatments, according to the letter.

The number of chronic HCV cases has tripled from 2010 to 2015, with an estimated 2.7 to 3.9 million Americans living with the infection, Khanna noted. Each year 20,000 patients will die from the infection, making it the leading infectious cause of death among Americans. The death toll from HCV accounts for more than all of the other top 60 infectious diseases combined, including HIV and tuberculosis.

“Many of these deaths directly result from patients’ inability to access medicines due to their outrageously high prices,” Khanna said. “American taxpayers are also victims of this pricing, which negatively impacts state and federal budgets.”
 
HCV drug costs have been a source of tension in the health care space since the new class of highly effective antiviral medications hit the market. Due to the costly nature of these drugs, many patients have difficulty gaining access to HCV treatment despite the high cure rates.

Additionally, many private and public insurers limit reimbursement to patients with HCV who have severe liver damage. Patients without late stage liver damage and those without insurance typically do not receive treatment, according to the letter.

Approximately 60% to 70% of patients who do not receive treatment go on to develop chronic liver disease and hepatocellular cancer, according to the letter.

“It’s simply outrageous to force those with hepatitis C to pay such exorbitant amounts for life-saving medications,” said Rep Chellie Pingree (D-ME), who signed the letter. “Secretary Azar should be doing everything in his power to deliver relief to the millions of Americans with hepatitis C who are struggling to afford treatment and to the states that are fighting to address this public health crisis.”
 
Azar has the power to use patented pharmaceuticals so long as the government provides reasonable compensation to the patent holder, according to the letter.
 
In 2001, HHS secretary Tommy Thompson used section 1428 to save millions of dollars on Cipro, a drug that treats individuals exposed to anthrax, according to the letter.

If Azar acted similarly, it would allow patients to receive treatment before HCV infection progresses or spreads to other people, Khanna argues in the letter. 

This action would save thousands of lives, and millions of taxpayer dollars, according to the letter.

“Taxpayers foot a hefty bill so companies like Gilead can conduct research and develop lifesaving and life-extending drugs. But the market is broken. Skyrocketing prices are keeping breakthrough therapies out of the hands of the patients who need them,” said Rep Peter Welch (D-VT), who signed the letter. “No one should have to choose between paying for something they cannot afford or risking a loss they cannot endure. But if we don’t take commonsense steps to bring down the costs of prescription drugs, more and more Americans will face that choice.”


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