By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger
An article in Newsweek in March 2017 talked about a “…crowded and confusing” landscape for treating Hepatitis C (HCV) that prevents many Primary Care Physicians (PCPs) from prescribing the new Direct Acting Agents (DAAs) to treat the disease (Wapner 2017). The argument posed is that, physicians are “…still too unfamiliar with the regimens to speak with confidence about them,” according to Ira Jacobson, a hepatologist who leads the department of medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York. He posits that this discomfort leads them to send patients to liver specialists, or to delay treatment until more severe symptoms arise, the latter of which is a regular pre-requisite on virtually every Prior Authorization (PA) request form.
This argument caught my eye, as someone who writes about and researches coverage for these DAA drugs, as has done so since 2013. One of the most frequent conversations I heard when Sovaldi (Gilead) and Olysio (Janssen) were first released on the market was that there was confusion over which doctors could prescribe them. Unlike HIV, treatments for HCV largely lagged in the ‘completely intolerable’ realm, with patients dropping out of treatment like flies and a success rate of only around 50%. Things, however, have radically changed; the question, then, becomes, “Have doctors?”
Realistically, we have a considerable problem, in the United States, with aspiring doctors choosing to specialize, rather than going into general practice, in no small part because it guarantees them higher incomes. Higher incomes for them, however, means higher costs to consumers, in the same way that higher-priced drugs to treat chronic conditions get shunted into the highest pricing tiers. This gets passed along to consumers in the form of higher co-pays for visits ($25 for PCPs; $75 for Specialists), and higher co-pays for medications ($3 for blood pressure medication; $250 for HIV).
This problem extends, also, to prisons and jails – the high cost of treatment serves as a significant barrier to providing inmates with treatment, which presents a larger issue, because inmates have an exponentially higher incidence and prevalence of HCV than the general population (Gloucester Times, 2017). Testing prisoners is expensive, as well, as inmate populations swell, while prison healthcare budgets remain relatively stagnant. Once those prisoners are released back into the general population, if they’re unaware of being infected with HCV or whose infections have gone untreated, they can go on to infect those who are not part of the prison system, are also unlikely to be tested and treated.
Beyond just the cost of co-pays are the long-term costs of PCPs being reticent to screen or prescribe for HCV: failing to address HCV will lead to liver decompensation, liver cancer, kidney diseases and failure, higher HCV viral loads that make spreading the disease easier, jaundice, digestive illnesses, and thyroid issues, none of which are particularly cheap to treat. The host of accompanying side effects of leaving the disease untreated far outweigh the admittedly outlandish prices set by HCV drug manufacturers.
The reality is that any medical doctor who has prescribing privileges can prescribe these new treatment regimens. The vast majority of these doctors also have access to smartphones, all of which have any number of apps designed to compare new drug regimens with existing prescriptions to ferret out counter-indications; there is, in fact, an entire website specifically aimed at finding counter-indications (http://www.hep-druginteractions.org/) that also offers mobile apps. The argument that doctors are unsure of the counter-indications is really rendered moot by the existence of these easy-to-use tools.
With that, the biggest hurdle to overcome, for virtually every party involved, is the cost of treatment, and with the current administration’s funding priorities being…questionable, at best…it’s unapparent if even the existing treatment coverage landscape will exist. We’re hoping for more stable conditions, and less erratic proposals. Until then, we’ll just keep plugging to try and find a solution.
- Gloucester Times. (2017, April 13). Our view: High treatment costs fuel spread of hepatitis C. Gloucester, MA: Gloucester Times: Opinion: Editorials: Our View. Retrieved from: http://www.gloucestertimes.com/opinion/editorials/our-view-high-treatment-costs-fuel-spread-of-hepatitis-c/article_4edf8df0-5abc-5041-9f94-6844f5057e74.html
- University of Liverpool. (2017, April 13). HEP Drug Interaction Checker. Liverpool, UK: University of Liverpool: HEP Drug Interactions. Retrieved from: http://www.hep-druginteractions.org/
- Wapner, J. (2017, March 22). HEPATITIS C CURES LAG WHILE NEW DRUGS WAIT IN THE WINGS. New York, NY: Newsweek LLC: Newsweek: Tech & Science. Retrieved from: http://www.newsweek.com/hepatitis-c-cure-572220
Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.