WASHINGTON, May 12 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) today asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to invoke emergency powers to make expensive hepatitis C drugs available at affordable prices to treat tens of thousands of veterans now being denied the most effective care.
The VA recently stopped enrolling veterans in successful new treatments for the often deadly liver disease because the department already had spent the more than $400 million it had budgeted for the costly drugs.
The high-profit hepatitis C drugs are among the most expensive medications on the market. Gilead Sciences makes two of the new blockbuster medications and charges $1,000 per pill. That adds up to $84,000 over the course of caring for a single patient. Even with a discount, the large VA health care system still drained its budget for treating hepatitis C.
Sanders’ proposal would make it possible for the VA, which already has treated about 20,000 veterans for hepatitis C, to afford to care for the estimated 200,000 additional veterans enrolled in VA health care who are believed to have the disease.
In a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, Sanders urged him to authorize the manufacture or importation of the drug for VA patients at a fraction of what is being charged by the companies which hold patents on the medications.
“Our nation’s veterans cannot and should not be denied treatment while drug companies rake in billions of dollars in profits,” Sanders said in the letter. He noted that the new medications could cure many more patients with far fewer side effects. “We must not allow corporate greed to stand in the way of this potential.”
The legal provision Sanders cited has been used in the past to stop profiteering by defense contractors in wartime. The threat of using the same law by the administration of President George W. Bush persuaded Bayer, which held a patent on Cipro, to dramatically cut the price of the antibiotic after anthrax-laced letters were mailed to Capitol Hill and news media offices in 2001.
“One solution to this would be for Gilead Sciences to simply provide the drug to VA at no cost,” Sanders said. “However, the company has not stepped up to do this for our country’s veterans.”
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Sanders last year held a hearing on the high price of hepatitis C medications. Now serving as ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders said using the government’s existing authority to have the hepatitis C drugs manufactured or imported at lower cost would save taxpayers billions of dollars now going to the pharmaceutical companies.
To read Sanders’ letter to Secretary McDonald, click here.