More than 73,000 Louisianans carry the hepatitis C virus, a highly contagious blood-borne infection that can cause acute illness along with long-term, chronic damage to the liver that can include cirrhosis, cancer and death.
While hepatitis C has been around for a long time, it’s become a more serious problem in recent years with the rise in opioid addiction. An estimated 500 new cases are diagnosed each year in the Pelican State. And because nearly half of those living with the disease are either on Medicaid or uninsured, this comes at a potential high cost to the state.
The good news is most cases of hepatitis C are curable, given recent treatment advancements. The bad news is those new treatments cost $85,000 per patient because the drugs are still under patent, which prohibits competition from generic drug manufacturers The exorbitant cost, coupled with the state’s dire budget situation, means it’s simply not possible to treat everyone who needs it. As a result, Louisiana has been forced to ration care, treating only those who have the most advanced symptoms and leaving the rest to suffer while potentially spreading the disease it to others.
Louisiana’s Secretary of Health, Dr. Rebekah Gee, has proposed to lower the cost of these treatment by invoking a little-known federal patent law that lets the federal government authorize the production of generic versions of patented inventions if it determines that it’s in the public interest. The law has been used several times, including by the Department of Defense in the 1960s to secure antibiotics at a quarter of the price charged by the drug’s patent-holder, Pfizer.
A team of medical experts, including Dr. Joshua Sharfstein at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, has determined that the hepatitis C situation in Louisiana meets the three key criteria required for this unconventional approach. First, the state is facing a major public health challenge. Second, the challenge could be addressed by providing the patented treatment and there are no viable alternative treatments. And finally, the high price of the patented treatment effectively blocks the state from providing treatment for all those who need it.
At a time when politics in our country, especially on health care, are badly divided, this represents an opportunity for the state to work hand-in-hand with the federal government to address a public health epidemic and help people who otherwise would needlessly suffer. It could ease pressure on the state budget, and set a blueprint that other states could then follow. As such, we all should applaud Gee’s ingenuity and urge her to move forward with requesting the necessary action by the U.S. Secretary of Health.
senior policy analyst, Louisiana Budget Project