KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A new combination of drugs offers a cure for hepatitis C, the virus that often leads to liver disease. For taxpayers and private insurers, who will generally cover the treatment, the cost of curing the four million people diagnosed in the U.S will come at a high price.
Doctors at the University of Kansas Hospital, who helped conduct Sovaldi tests in clinical trials, said the curable treatment is now available. Doctors said the cure rates are up to 98 percent effective with few side effects.
Dr. Richard Gilroy, the hospital's Medical Director of Liver Transplantation, said thousands of people have already taken it.
"I anticipate we won't be dispensing it in 10 years anymore," he said.
Until now, therapies for hepatitis C helped only about half of patients and resulted in numerous side effects, such as flu-like symptoms, anemia or depression
The new treatment runs $1,000 a pill. Gilroy said the cost to insurers can span from $94,000 to a $350,000 for a treatment.
Sounds unreasonably expensive? Dr. Gilroy said it is affordable compared to the cost to maintain hepatitis C during a patient's lifetime.
Barton Crader lived for years without knowing he had hepatitis C because he was asymptomatic for years. He believes he contracted the virus through an unscreened blood transfusion in the Vietnam era.
Seventy percent of those who have contracted the disease did so between 1945 and 1965, a time of unrestricted drug use. It was also a time when Americans fought in wars in countries with high incidents of hepatitis C that went largely unscreened.
"Back then, they needed blood so badly they didn't have time to screen," Crader said.
Many people who have the disease still don't know they have it and should get screened. In the last few years, Crader underwent two liver transplants and those surgeries can run up to $500,000 each.
Dr. Gilroy estimated Crader's medical care costs $1.2 million during the last several years. Crader is still not cured.
This week, a panel of medical experts will meet to recommend guidelines about which patients are the best candidates for the use of Sovaldi and Olysio and whether doctors should advise other, healthier patients to wait until their disease worsens, due to the high cost.
Crader is anxious to get started because he still wonders when his hepatitis C will return.
He said he has a lot to live for, including his five grandchildren.