August 4, 2014 | Posted By Bruce D. White, DO, JD

In December 2013, the FDA approved Sovaldi® (sofosbuvir, Gilead Sciences, Inc.) for treatment of hepatitis C. A truly wonderful medical breakthrough, the oral drug effectively cures 90% of patients who take it correctly. The online physician resource Web site Medscape has referred to this drug as a “game changer.” Clearly it will change the health care delivery game in any number of ways.

But the miracle comes with a catch: the cost is prohibitive. The full treatment course is so expensive that very few can afford it even with good health insurance. Each pill costs about $1000; patients will need to take the medicine once a day for about 12 weeks for a full course. The total cost will be about $90-120,000 per patient. Many are asking how is it possible to justify the cost? Is this fair?

Of course, the principal difficulty at first glace is that the costs will strain the system to a degree never before seen with the introduction of a new drug. The strain may break the bank. Recently Reuters has reported that one Florida health insurer – WellCare Health Plans – has sustained significant corporate losses attributable to the fact that Florida requires insurers to prove sofosbuvir to Medicaid patients. It has been reported that 47 state Medicaid programs are covering the drug, and about half have some form of preauthorization. Illinois Medicaid has recently changed its preauthorization criteria to provide the drug only to those patients with advanced liver disease, and to those who can tolerate interferon as an adjunctive treatment, and to exclude individuals with a history of alcohol or drug abuse. It has been projected that drug availability to California residents alone will add $18 billion to health care costs in one year.

Just how all of this will work out is unknown. Even more distressing is the report that Gilead plans to license three to five Indian pharmaceutical companies to supply the product elsewhere for as little as $2000 per patient for a six month treatment course. There are certain to be lawsuits that will attempt to sort all of the fairness issues out but this will be a novel case for the courts to try and it will take years. However, this problem does illustrate how American ingenuity and creativity in the pharmaceutical industry continues to innovate in miraculous ways. For the future though we may be coping with how many miracles Americans can afford.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.