$1,000-a-day hepatitis C drug approved to treat prison inmates in Illinois

Updated April 21, 2014 at 11:51 a.m. with comment from the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Illinois prison inmates will now be able to get a new and effective -- but incredibly costly -- drug for hepatitis C.

The Herald-Review reported on Friday that the state Department of Corrections has approved the use of Sovaldi for hepatitis C. The medication has a cure rate of 95 percent.

The drug costs at least $1,000 per day.

Corrections officials estimate that as many as 3,750 prisoners in the state have hepatitis C, a life-threatening blood-borne infection that's linked to tainted needles. Chronic hepatitis C, often called a "silent disease," causes cirrhosis and often requires a liver transplant. Illinois routinely screens inmates for hepatitis C when they are admitted to prison, unless they refuse.

The local newspaper reports Sovaldi will cost state taxpayers $61 million if only one third of prisoners with hepatitis C receive the drug, compared with current treatment costs of $8 million.

Corrections officials say treatment will be on a case-by-case basis depending on the extent of the disease, the inmate's overall health and his sentence.

"It is impossible to say how many inmates will be treated in a particular way or with a particular drug," spokesman Tom Shaer said. "IDOC has decided, yes, these drugs will be used, when appropriate. We cannot determine the extent to which they will be used."

John Maki of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group in Chicago, says the state is obligated to provide treatment. He noted that undiagnosed inmates could spread the disease to other prisoners or the public once they're released.

Shaer, however, said that the department isn't required to use a specif drug in its treatment of the disease.

When admitted to prison, inmates, unless they refuse, are screened for the disease, which when left untreated can lead to liver failure and death. That protocol had been recommended by the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog group.

Since Sovaldi earned approval from the Food and Drug Administration in December, controversy about its cost has overshadowed its purported miraculous efficacy.

The potential burden on taxpayers extends beyond jail cells, since more than half of individuals with hepatitis C are veterans, prisoners, the uninsured or Medicaid beneficiaries, according to the New York Times. In all of those cases taxpayers are likely to be saddled with the cost of the medication.

Earlier this year, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee requested that Gilead Sciences, the maker of the drug, provide explanation for its high price tag. Executives of the company have vowed to meet with members of Congress to address how the company can be sure Sovaldi reaches those who need it most.

CBS News reported earlier this month that stock shares for Gilead Sciences have soared 53 percent over the last year. Sovaldi may generate the biggest sales ever for a drug's first year, which could bring in as much as $10 billion this year alone, some analysts say.

There are a number of pharmaceutical companies currently developing other drugs for the treatment of hepatitis C. Earlier this month Merck and Co. presented new data from an ongoing Phase 2 clinical trial to evaluate the safety and efficacy of a once-a-day pill for the treatment of chronic hepatitis C, which they say has an even higher cure rate -- up to 98 percent. AbbVie, another pharmaceutical company, plans to unveil their hepatitis C treatment later this year.



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