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Wonder drug for hepatitis C has $90,000 price tag

| Tuesday, June 17, 2014, 8:36 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Your money or your life?

Sovaldi, a new pill for hepatitis C, cures the liver-wasting disease in 9 of 10 patients, but treatment can cost more than $90,000.

Leading medical societies recommend the drug as a first-line treatment, and patients are clamoring for it. But insurance companies and state Medicaid programs are balking at the price. In Oregon, officials propose to limit how many low-income patients can get Sovaldi.

Yet if Sovaldi didn't exist, insurers would still be paying in the mid-to-high five figures to treat the most common kind of hepatitis C, a new pricing survey indicates. Some of the older alternatives involve more side effects, and are less likely to provide cures.

So what's a fair price?

The cost of this breakthrough drug is highlighting cracks in the health care system at a time of heightened budget concerns. The Obama administration has a huge political stake in controlling treatment costs, but its critics may cry rationing.

“People are going to want to try to dodge this hot potato,” says economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

For insurers, there's a frustrating twist: For each middle-aged person they pay to cure with Sovaldi, any financial benefits from preventing liver failure are likely to accrue to Medicare, not to them.

More than 3 million Americans carry the hepatitis C virus, and many don't realize it. It's a public health concern since the disease can be transmitted by contact with infected blood, and sometimes through sexual activity. Health officials advise all baby boomers to get tested.

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