BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's health secretary is clashing with the pharmaceutical industry over the high costs of hepatitis C drugs that she says are so expensive many infected people in the state go without treatment.
Rebekah Gee, a doctor, has enlisted public health and legal experts from around the country to study options to lower the price tag for treatment that costs more than $20,000 per patient to combat the blood-borne viral infection that can cause liver failure and death.
Among the options, Gee said Monday she is exploring the possible use of a little-known, 1910 federal patent law she hopes could allow the federal government to drastically force down the price of hepatitis C medications.
"Just letting people continue to suffer and die for lack of treatment, which is the current situation, is not an acceptable status quo," Louisiana's health secretary said at a luncheon speech. "Something needs to be done."
Louisiana has 35,000 people with hepatitis C who are uninsured or on Medicaid, relying on the state for care. Gee said only 320 received drug treatment last year because of high costs. To treat and cure all of them, she said, would cost the state an estimated $760 million — out of a $13 billion health department budget.
"Where am I going to get that from? K-12 education? Who's going to pay that?" Gee asked.
Struggling to find a way to expand the number of people who gain access to the hepatitis C medications, Gee solicited experts in law, economics and health policy — who met in April at Johns Hopkins University — to look at alternatives.
Among the options considered involve invoking a law that allows the federal government to sidestep patents and use inventions while giving the inventor "reasonable compensation" for doing so. Gee said the law was used to bring down medication costs in the 1960s, but more recently has been employed by the government to purchase software and night-vision goggles.
Pharmaceutical groups say that being forced to charge lower prices would dissuade companies from searching for future medical breakthroughs. They say the high costs of drugs account for the billions spent on research and development of life-saving medications.
"Bringing new treatments and cures to patients is time-consuming, risky and expensive," said Caitlin Carroll, spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, known as PhRMA, in a statement.
Carroll said Louisiana should consider the benefits of using available drugs to cure hepatitis C. She added those can lower state health care costs over time by cutting down treatment times and averting the need for organ transplants and "other costly health services over decades."
"Disregarding patent rights will not provide the benefits Louisianans have been promised and would discourage future innovation," Carroll said.
Invoking the patent law for hepatitis C medication would require the Trump administration to agree, and Gee said she has no idea if federal officials would do so. She's not decided whether she'll try to gain that support, calling use of the patent law the "nuclear option."
Instead, Gee said she's also studying other concepts to make obtaining the cure for hepatitis C more affordable. Another idea she called the "Netflix pricing methodology" could involve a state and its insurance providers pooling their money to pay for a subscription to get access to a drug for a limited period, able to treat as many people as possible during that time.
"At this point, we have not decided what we'll be asking for," Gee said.
For now, the state will continue to restrict who receives the hepatitis C drugs to the most severe cases.
Hepatitis C is an especially pressing issue for the Department of Corrections, with more than 1,800 inmates who have the virus. Hepatitis C treatments cost the department the second-most of all conditions, ahead of cancer and behind just HIV/AIDS. In the state budget year that ended in June, the agency said it paid more than $1 million to have 23 inmates complete the regimen.