WASHINGTON (AP) — The makers of a breakthrough drug for hepatitis C put profits before patients in pricing the $1,000 pill that cures the liver-wasting disease, Senate investigators said Tuesday.
A bipartisan report from the Senate Finance Committee concluded that California-based Gilead Sciences was focused on maximizing revenue even as the company’s own analysis showed a lower price would allow more patients to be treated.
Although the report focused on just one drug that has made headlines in the last few years, the lawmakers who led the investigation said their findings are a warning about what’s to come with other high-priced treatments for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and HIV.
“I’m telling you, this is the future,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. “The future is going to be about specialty drugs.”
In a statement, Gilead said it disagreed with the report’s conclusions.
The company’s first breakthrough pill was called Sovaldi; priced at $1,000 per pill, or $84,000 for a full course of treatment. Gilead has since introduced a more expensive next-generation pill called Harvoni, which is highly effective and simpler for patients to take. That one is priced at $94,500 for a course of treatment.
“Gilead responsibly and thoughtfully priced Sovaldi and Harvoni,” said the company’s statement, noting that more than 600,000 patients have been treated worldwide since the introduction of Sovaldi two years ago.
But Wyden and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said their 18-month investigation found that the high price tag significantly limited patient access and heaped huge costs on federal and state health care programs. At least 27 state Medicaid programs restricted Sovaldi’s use for only the sickest patients.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that affects some 3 million people in the U.S. and claims more lives here than AIDS. Patients say the disease feels like a bad flu that never goes away. While the illness advances gradually, it can ultimately destroy the liver, requiring a transplant to save the patient’s life. The virus is primarily spread by contact with infected blood.
More than three out of four infected adults are baby boomers, the age group now entering Medicare. That program will spend will spend more than $9 billion this year on drugs for hepatitis C, according to government estimates released prior to the Senate report.
Although professional medical societies recommend the Gilead drugs as first-line treatments for anyone with hepatitis C, the report found that the high cost resulted in less than 3 percent of the potentially eligible Medicaid beneficiaries getting treatment in 2014. Medicaid is the federal-state health program for low-income people.
Other conclusions from the report:
— Gilead priced its first hepatitis C drug — Sovaldi — with an eye toward maximizing future returns from its follow-on medication, Harvoni.