Prisons struggle to pay for hepatitis C drugs

Hepatitis C has been the scourge of prison healthcare systems for decades--first as a nearly endemic disease, and now as a potential budget-buster now that a cure is on the horizon.

National Public Radio reports that Gilead's recently released blockbuster drug that all but cures hepatitis C has become a burden on correctional systems' budgets due to its enormous cost. Another drug introduced by AbbVie that recently received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is also expected to be very costly.

Although only an estimated 3.2 million Americans have hepatitis C, as much as 35 percent of the U.S. prison populated is infected with the virus. Their only viable treatment options prior to the introduction of the drugs were a long-term series of abdominal injections that worked only about half of the time, or a liver transplant, which carries a price tag well into the six figures.

The regimens, which actually cure the disease, run about $1,000 a pill, or up to $150,000 per prisoner. It is among the leading drivers in the nearly 12 percent drug cost increase in the U.S. during 2014. Most correctional systems were sucker-punched by the cost.

"The advent of these new treatments for hepatitis C came like a monsoon on a calm summer day. We didn't see it coming," A.T. Wall, director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, told NPR. His entire system has an annual budget for healthcare of $19 million-- enough to treat about 140 patients with hepatitis C--and have nothing left over for the needs of other prisoners.

And in those prison systems where patients receive the drug treatment, it is done so sparingly at best.

"Even in systems where those drugs are being used, there are still tight controls on access. And they're not being used in a wide variety of people or universally, by any means," Rich Feffer of the advocacy group the National Hepatitis Corrections Network, told NPR.

To learn more:
- read the NPR article