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The ongoing debate over the cost of prescription drugs took another twist as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT.) has asked the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to use emergency powers to break – or override – the patents on high-priced hepatitis C medicines sold by several drug makers, including Gilead Sciences GILD +2.21%.

The new hepatitis C treatments cure more than 90% of those infected and, in the U.S., cost from $63,000 to $94,500, depending upon the drug and regimen, before any discounts. Gilead markets Sovaldi and Harvoni, while AbbVie ABBV +1.03% sells Viekera Pak.

The prices have caused a firestorm as both public and private payers complain the treatments are straining their budgets. Sanders notes the VA stopped enrolling veterans who need treatment for hepatitis C due to budget constraints. The agency has already reallocated $400 million on hepatitis C drugs, but needs additional funding.

“I cannot think of another situation where the government-use provision [of the law that allows the VA to break the patents] should be applied,” Sanders wrote in a letter to Robert McDonald, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary. “Our nation’s veterans cannot, and should not, be denied treatment while drug companies rake in billions of dollars in profits.”

We asked Gilead and AbbVie for comment and will update you accordingly.

Sanders, who until recently headed the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, notes the agency has treated about 20,000 vets for hepatitis C and needs fund for an estimated 180,000 more vets who are enrolled in VA health care and are believed to be infected with the chronic disease.

It would be unusual for the federal government to seek to break a patent held by a drug maker. Sanders, though, notes that the George W. Bush Administration persuaded Bayer to cut the price on its Cipro antibiotic in 2001 after letters laced with anthrax were mailed to Capitol Hill and media outlets.

However, Sanders only envisions the maneuver being used to help the VA defray the cost of the drugs. He does not plan to ask other agencies to consider breaking patents, since the VA has already encountered money problems to combat hepatitis C, a congressional aide tells us.

It is not clear whether the VA will consider breaking patents. We asked a VA spokesman about the idea and he did not directly respond, but did say the agency is working with Congress to find ways to address the financial shortfall.

In fact, Sloan Gibson, the VA Deputy Secretary, yesterday wrote a letter to Richard Blumenthal, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, for permission to repurpose another $400 million in its budget for the drugs.

The VA spokesman says the extra funds would be sufficient to treat between 5,000 and 10,000 vets with cirrhosis depending on the treatment and duration required. As a result, up to 4,500 new cases of liver cancer and as many as 900 liver transplants – over time – could be prevented.

© Interactive Pharm 2022

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