Editor’s note: In addition to Tricia Neuman, Jack Hoadley and Juliette Cubanski also coauthored this post.
For a patient with hepatitis C, a potentially deadly disease, the prospect of finding a cure with minimal side effects is a really big deal. Also a big deal is the cost of Sovaldi (sofosbuvir), an oral drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration in December 2013 for the treatment of chronic hepatitis C. Sovaldi has been priced by its manufacturer, Gilead, at $1,000 per pill, or an estimated $84,000 for its entire 12-week regimen. It joins the treatment arsenal with several older drugs generally thought either to be less effective or to have more side effects, and another newly approved drug to be taken in combination with other drugs. More drugs are expected to gain approval within the year.
Sovaldi’s price tag has drawn attention in part because an estimated 3 million Americans have the hepatitis C virus and could be considered candidates for new drugs. Patients will clearly benefit from a long-awaited cure, and public and private payers could potentially see a reduction in health care spending over the long term if Sovaldi successfully cures this disease and fewer patients require high-cost liver transplants. But private insurers and public programs will face significant budgetary pressures if a large number of patients receive this treatment at current prices.
To date, attention has focused on cost implications for private health plans, Medicaid, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). For example, UnitedHealth reported that the cost of Sovaldi was “multiple times” its expectations. State Medicaid officials and Medicaid plans have warned that the cost of the new treatments will pose significant fiscal challenges to state budgets and plan payment rates, even though Medicaid receives a 23.1 percent rebate (discount) for all brand drug purchases. The VA has decided to cover the drug and secured from Gilead a discount of 44 percent, one that applies to certain other federal purchasers, but is targeting treatment to the sickest patients while waiting for less expensive drugs to become available.
Less attention has been paid to the cost implications for Medicare, where coverage of Sovaldi will fall under Part D, the program’s outpatient prescription drug benefit administered by private plans. Given the drug’s effectiveness, most if not all of Part D plans will likely cover Sovaldi. The anticipated impact on costs to Medicare will be revealed to CMS later this month, when plans submit premium bids for 2015. Plans will increase their bids to cover the expected costs of new treatments, which will raise costs for both the federal government and Part D enrollees who pay premiums. CMS will release the average Part D premium for 2015 in August.
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