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Louisiana is on track to become the first state to adopt a new method of obtaining normally pricey hepatitis C drugs — a move that health officials hope will ultimately help the state eradicate the deadly liver-damaging disease.

State officials announced Thursday that Louisiana has begun the process of formally seeking a pharmaceutical partner for an innovative “subscription” model for obtaining treatments that cure hepatitis C — the nation's most deadly infectious disease. Under the current timeline, the state hopes to have a contract in place by July.

“Hepatitis C kills more Americans than every other infectious disease combined,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “It’s caused a public health crisis in Louisiana.”

The idea has been mulled for nearly two years but only started to come together in recent months. The launch of a government "solicitation for offers" kicks off the process of establishing a formal partnership.

Hepatitis C is virtually curable, but the high costs of medication have made it unaffordable for thousands of Louisiana residents who are infected and rely on the state for health care coverage. The state has been able to cover only a fraction of Hepatitis C patients on the state's Medicaid program and in prisons.

"Treatment is out of reach for many," said State Health Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee.

The new proposal is being referred to as a "subscription-based" model: The state will take the money that it currently spends toward Hep C treatment in Medicaid and the prison system, and find a drugmaker that will agree to be paid that amount for unlimited access to the medication over a five year period. 

“They’re never going to sell us those drugs anyway because we’re not going to be able to afford them,” Edwards said of the motivation for pharmaceutical companies. "Our innovative model will allow us to dramatically expand access to the drug and eventually eliminate Hepatitis C as a public health problem."

Some of the nation's biggest drugmakers have already expressed positive interest in the idea, Gee said.

Nearly 35,000 people in Louisiana's Medicaid program have the Hep C virus, which is spread through blood contamination and can lead to liver disease and cirrhosis. Because of the high cost of medication, which can run in the tens of thousands of dollars, just 384 Medicaid patients were treated for it last year. Another 4,000 prisoners have Hep C, and a similar fraction received medication in the past year.

The actual number of Louisiana residents living with the curable illness is likely thousands more – at least one LDH estimate put it at more than 70,000 residents.

LDH's goal is to treat more than 10,000 Medicaid-enrolled and incarcerated patients by 2021 and ultimately eliminate the disease through the use of the subscription model.

Louisiana is one of several states across the country that has suffered from a national opioid epidemic. Because Hep C is highly contagious and contracted by blood, it has also seen a spike.

“It’s a highly contagious virus,” Gee said.

In addition to increased access to treatment for those who contract hepatitis C, state health officials plan to beef up screening and awareness efforts, as well as programs that promote clean needles for addicts, said Dr. Alex Billioux, the assistant secretary of health for the Louisiana Department of Health's Office of Public Health.

Billioux said many people are unaware that they have contracted the virus until they see signs of serious health affects related to it.

“The damage it does in the body is largely to the liver,” he said.

“To do this successfully, the Department of Health will have to engage a variety of partners around the state," he said.

Edwards said he already has had other conversations with governors in other states and expects Louisiana to serve as a model for this type of access to treatment. The bi-partisan National Governor's Association last year identified the subscription-based model as one of its key recommendations for states to consider as they look to improve access while ensuring fiscal sustainability.

“I think it’s a matter of when, not if, we’re going to have something that will be worthy of emulation around the country,” Edwards said. “There is a lot of interest around this.”

Gee said she also sees potential to use the plan, if successful, as a model for access to other costly treatments. 

“I think it’s a great (model) for this population and has many many potential usages beside hepatitis," she said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.