WASHINGTON -- 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. There was no immediate response from Gilead.
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.
Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said their 18-month investigation found that the high price 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.
Although professional medical societies recommend the Gilead drugs as first-line treatments for anyone with hepatitis C infection, the Senate 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.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that affects some 3 million people in the U.S. and claims more lives here than AIDS. More than three out of four infected adults are baby boomers, the age group now entering Medicare. The government estimates that program will spend more than $9 billion this year on drugs for hepatitis C.
Patients say the disease feels like a bad flu that never goes away. While the disease 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.
The price of drugs is the public's top health care concern in opinion polls, and the 2016 presidential candidates are increasingly paying attention. Wyden and Grassley said it's an issue the Senate must grapple with.
The pharmaceutical industry says the high price of new drugs reflects the cost of research and development. Gilead, in earlier efforts to explain its pricing for Sovaldi, said it compared favorably on a "cost per cure" basis with older drugs that were much less effective.
The cost pressure from hepatitis drugs on private insurers and government programs is expected to ease as competitor drugs gain a footing in the market. However, Grassley and Wyden said the same sort of cost crisis is likely to arise with other new medications.