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Simeprevir+Sovaldi Access - Getting free hepatitis C drugs a boon for needy Travis County residents
  Posted: 7:36 p.m. Monday, March 17, 2014
By Mary Ann Roser - American-Statesman Staff
The companies that make expensive but highly effective hepatitis C drugs are offering the new treatments for free or nearly free to eligible patients who need help.
The usual 12-week course of treatment costs $84,000 for Sovaldi and $66,000 for Olysio, a total of $150,000. Patient advocates, private insurers and organizations that provide drugs through publicly funded programs, such as Medicaid and the Veterans Health Administration, have raised concerns about those costs.
But officials with the two companies, Sovaldi maker Gilead Sciences and Olysio maker Janssen Therapeutics, said they have assistance programs for people with insurance - and without - who need the drugs, which can be taken together or with other drugs. Sovaldi said it provides the drug for free to eligible patients who lack health insurance and have annual incomes below $100,000 for a family of up to three or earnings that are at or below 500 percent of the federal poverty level.
Among the organizations helping patients tap into the companies' patient assistance programs is Travis County's taxpayer-supported CommUnityCare, which operates a network of 23 health centers.
A new clinic for hepatitis C patients that relies on the drug assistance programs opened March 3 at the system's North Central Health Center at 1210 W. Braker Lane. That clinic is using the two-drug combination treatment and expects to initially help "hundreds" of uninsured patients obtain the drugs, said Sarah Cook, Central Health's Medicaid waiver director. The clinic saw 38 patients in its first seven days.
"It's an incredible game-changer," Cook said.
For this year, Central Health, which oversees CommUnityCare, is contributing $370,000 to pay for clinic staff led by Dr. Imtiaz Alam, medical director of the Austin Hepatitis Center, Cook said. Alam is at the clinic on Mondays and Tuesdays and works with nurses and other providers who take care of patients throughout the week. Eventually, hepatitis C clinic services are expected to also be offered at the Southeast Health & Wellness Center, which CommUnityCare expects to open at 2901 Montopolis Drive in October.
Before the hepatitis C clinic opened at North Central, some patients had to wait a year to see a CommUnityCare doctor, says a document Cook provided. About 6,500 CommUnityCare patients are affected by hepatitis C, Alam said.
More than 3 million Americans have chronic hepatitis C infection, which can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer. It is generally transmitted through blood and can be deadly. Many people don't know they're infected, prompting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend screening for anyone born between 1945 and 1965.
Alam said he is asking the state of Texas Medicaid to put Sovaldi and Olysio on its formulary. "I believe these new medications are well worth their cost and their utilization will have a positive impact in reduction of future health care costs with fewer long-term liver disease complications," he wrote in an email. Dr. William Lee, a professor of internal medicine who is doing clinical trials on new hepatitis C drugs at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, expects a single-dose pill to come out later this year. He does not yet know how much it will cost but hopes that the marketplace eventually brings down the costs of new hepatitis drugs.
He believes the drugs he is testing have potential to be as effective or more effective than Sovaldi and Olysio. "I think what's coming around the corner is competition," Lee said.
Hepatitis C "takes a big chunk out of your life and out of your wallet," said Annalyn Earley, 62, of Austin. She is one of Alam's patients and is covered by an insurance program in Texas for people with costly pre-existing illnesses. Earley, who is transitioning to Obamacare, said she was infected by a blood transfusion after a car accident at age 25.
She takes a single dose of Sovaldi and of Olysio daily and says the change from her old drug regimen, known for its debilitating side effects, is "like day and night."
"I feel wonderful," Earley said. "I feel like I lost everything to this disease and now I'm going to get my life back."
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