Government Faces Fast-Increasing Costs of Treating Military Veterans With Hepatitis C

The cost to taxpayers of treating Washington, D.C.-area military veterans suffering from hepatitis C has eclipsed $64 million per year, according to a review of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs records by the News4 I-Team.

The fast-rising cost is attributed to a cutting-edge but expensive medication the agency began dispensing last year to veterans in Virginia, Maryland, D.C. and West Virginia.

The new hepatitis C drugs, which are known as Sovaldi and Harvoni, are highly effective and less likely to cause side effects in patients, doctors and government officials said. Multiple reports estimate a full treatment of the medication costs tens of thousands of dollars per patient. Each individual pill costs an estimated $1,000, according to a report from a U.S. Senate panel.

Agency records obtained by the I-Team from regional administrators of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs show 701 patients received the treatment at the Washington DC VA Medical Center in 2015. Those records show more than 200 patients were administered the medications at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center and more than 480 patients at Maryland’s VA medical system last year. In all, the cost of treatment exceeded $64 million, which is a $50 million increase from the cost of Hepatitis C treatment in 2014.

All costs are covered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and federal taxpayers.

Nationwide, the VA estimates the new treatment will cost $1 billion in 2016. But the agency said it has secured enough funding to expand the dispensation of the medicine to an increasing number of vets.

“We’re honored to be able to expand treatment for veterans who are afflicted with hepatitis C,” VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin said in a statement. “To manage limited resources previously, we established treatment priority for the sickest patients. “

Chris Goldzwig, a military veteran from Brunswick, Maryland, said his treatment of Harvoni saved him from suffering severe liver failure.

“It’s a miracle,” Goldzwig said. “If it wasn’t for this medicine, I wouldn’t be here.”

Goldzwig, who received his treatment over the course of 16 weeks at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center, said the Harvoni pills were less rigorous and physically challenging than his previous hepatitis C treatment, an interferon regimen that Goldzwig called nauseating.

Dr. Evelio Bravo, a physician at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center, said the pills have a very high success rate with local patients.

“Years ago, the (older) treatment was very complicated with side effects,” Bravo said. “The patient would feel ill during the treatment.”

“VA has long led the country in screening for and treating hepatitis C,” a statement from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said. “VA has treated over 76,000 Veterans infected with hepatitis C and approximately 60,000 have been cured.”

Members of Congress have criticized the manufacturer of the medicine for not offering a deeper discount to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“America's veterans deserve the same affordable access to life-saving medications such as sofosbuvir that Gilead is providing to patients in developing countries. If that’s not happening, the company’s leaders need to explain why,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee.

A spokeswoman for Gilead, the manufacturer of Sovaldi and Harvoni, said price discounts are offered for the medication.

“Most payers receive substantial discounts off this price, with the steepest discounts going to payers like Medicaid and the VA,” spokeswoman Cara Miller said. “Both the VA and Medicaid currently receive discounts in excess of 50 percent on Harvoni. With these rebates and discounts, the prices today are less than the cost of prior regimens.”

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