Costly hepatitis drug rattles insurance firms

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WASHINGTON -- When the Food and Drug Administration approved a medication called Sovaldi in December, it was hailed as a breakthrough in the fight against hepatitis C, a blood-borne disease that affects 3.2 million Americans and kills more people in the U.S. annually than AIDS.

Then California-based Gilead Sciences, the manufacturer, announced the price: $84,000 for a 12-week course, more than what many cancer treatments cost in a year.

The hefty price tag has rattled patient advocacy groups and insurance companies that say most costly new treatments coming on the market are targeted for a smaller patient population. Putting such a premium on a drug that could help so many will be crushing, they say.

At least one prescription drug plan is encouraging doctors to delay prescribing Sovaldi for patients who can wait. One insurer has said it risks bankruptcy if it's required to cover the drug for everyone who needs it this year. Advocates say Gilead has taken corporate greed to new levels.

The drug has also prompted a new round of hand-wringing over a larger issue: the escalating cost of specialty drugs, which are designed to treat chronic illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis and sometimes require special handling.

In the past, treating hepatitis C was not always successful and involved lengthy treatment with injectable drugs that had significant side effects. By contrast, Sovaldi promises to cure nearly all sufferers with a once-daily pill that has far fewer side effects.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called hepatitis C an undeclared public-health crisis, affecting as much as 2 percent of the adult U.S. population and killing 1,500 Americans a year. It is caused by a virus and is typically transmitted through blood contact, such as dirty syringes.

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