The Hill: Opinion: Treating hepatitis C: Too costly not to act

By Todd E. Gillenwater, op-ed exclusive to The Hill
August 1, 2014

Hepatitis C affects 3.2 million Americans, resulting in more than 16,000 deaths annually. It’s the leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplants, which require major surgery and hospitalization. Early therapies for the condition required weekly injections that caused side effects such as anemia, depression and flu-like symptoms, leading many to stop treatment.

However, recent breakthroughs have introduced medicines that cure hepatitis C with few side effects – the holy grail of drug development. You’d think these new medicines would be cause for celebration. Instead, we’ve been told the cost of these medicines is too high and they threaten to bankrupt our healthcare system.

New hepatitis C drugs mark a paradigm shift – from a model of somewhat iffy but costly chronic care to a model of short-term curative treatment with equal or slightly lower costs paid upfront. This new model may also require new payment and financing models. But, rather than focusing on reasons not to act – insurance companies have led the public complaints and 1 in 3 state Medicaid programs have refused to cover the drugs – we believe there’s much more to this topic to consider.

To further clarify the issue, we partnered with the Boston Consulting Group to produce “Innovation in Hepatitis C Treatment: New Opportunities for Action.” The current debate centers on how to price and pay for these new treatments, and who should be treated. We believe the discussion should be framed by acknowledging the undeniable success in innovation that has brought us to this point, contrasted with the consequences if we, as a society, fail to act.

Using a model developed by the Center for Disease Analysis, we estimate that new hepatitis C drugs could save 30,000 lives over the next 15 years when compared to the recent standard of care. In addition, the new medicines could prevent 16,000 cases of liver cancer and resulting liver transplants – a procedure that costs more than $500,000. With just a 5 percent increase in the number of patients screened and treated with these new medicines, 27,000 additional deaths from hepatitis C could be prevented – that’s nearly 60,000 lives saved over the next 15 years.

Yes, the economics associated with this revolutionary treatment breakthrough are worthy of thoughtful public discussion. However, the critical debate over the pricing of new treatments threatens to cloud the bigger picture regarding the incredible opportunity we have before us. Indeed, the case of hepatitis C is a likely prelude, with advances offering hope for similar breakthrough treatments and cures for other conditions down the road.

We can take a short-sighted, narrow view and conclude we can’t afford to act – or we can work together to develop and implement thoughtful policies and mechanisms to improve the lives of millions affected by hepatitis C.

Let’s choose to act.

Todd E. Gillenwater is executive vice president of advocacy and external relations at California Life Sciences Association (CLSA), a nonprofit public policy organization representing leading academic institutions and biotechnology, medical device, diagnostics and pharmaceutical firms.

Read the op-ed at The Hill.