LDH secretary discusses options for cutting Hep-C drug costs

(WAFB) - Each year in Louisiana, doctors' offices are filled with patients affected by Hepatitis C, a viral disease that can lead to liver damage or failure. The Louisiana Department of Health reports there are 73,000 people in the state living with Hep-C. Around half (35,000) are uninsured or depend on Medicaid and the state to pay for treatment.

Health Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee says the medication needed to treat and cure those with the virus comes with a $750 million price tag the state can't afford. "Only 320 of those individuals got drug treatment last year and that's unacceptable," said Gee.

Gee told reporters during Press Club that the state is looking at options to cut costs. One of those options would use an obscure, century-old federal patent law that allows the federal government to sidestep a patent and use a product if it's in the interest of the public. The law was most recently discussed to acquire an antidote during the anthrax scares. Gee also said the feds used the law to produce night vision googles. "Letting people suffer and die for a lack of treatment, the current situation is not an acceptable status quo," said Gee.

Gee describes the patent law as the "nuclear option," but it's being discussed with health and legal experts.

The idea is getting push back from PhMRA, a lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies. PhMRA director of public affairs, Caitlin Carroll, says the law does not apply in this case, and may not do anything to actually reduce the cost to taxpayers.

"Like innovators in any American industry, biopharmaceutical companies rely on patents to protect the substantial R&D investments that yield new and improved medicines," said Carroll in a statement. "Disregarding patent rights will not provide the benefits Louisianans have been promised and would discourage future innovation."

Carroll added that PhMRA was committed to working with Gee and others to address the issue. Another cost reducing option, said Gee, would involve an idea being developed with Senator Bill Cassidy. Gee says this idea uses a "Netflix model" in which the state would buy a subscription to a company in order to purchase the drugs needed. However, Gee says that idea is still being flushed out.

Regardless, Gee says more negotiation is needed with drug companies on the price of medication. "Surely there's a way for drug companies to still make money and a lot of it, but also for us to have individuals not suffer and die needlessly because of the prices being too high," said Gee.

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