But the big news was generally given short shrift: Sofosbuvir is very expensive medicine. News outlets glossed over the drug’s high cost, which drugmaker Gilead says in a press release is $84,000 for a three-month course of treatment for the most common form of the disease. That works out to $1,000 per pill. The Wall Street Journal did say Gilead president John Milligan doesn’t expect insurers will stymie the use of the drug, although some health plans may ask doctors to justify their prescriptions in writing. On Dec. 7, New York Times reporter Andrew Pollack raised the price question by quoting Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (which doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Gilead on the prices of drugs). Weinstein told Pollack the cost of the hepatitis drug was “unbearable to the health care system and it is completely unjustified.” Gilead defended the price, Pollack reported, calling it “fair given the drug’s higher cure rate and that the total cost of the 12-week regimen was ‘consistent with and in some cases lower than’ the cost of some other regimens for hepatitis C.” On Monday, Pollack’s Times colleague—medical correspondent Elisabeth Rosenthal—tweeted: “Sheesh, New oral treatment 4 Hep C= $100,000; $1000/pill! FDA says ‘safe and effective.’ No one weighs in on price.” (Rosenthal had her own excellent piece last week questioning the high price of hospital care, part of an ongoing series called, “Paying Till It Hurts.”)
In a lengthy piece published back in early November, the Times’ Pollack gave a more complete picture of the new drug, including the fact that “many of the new drug combinations have not been extensively tested yet. Side effects might still show up.” He reported its high price could be a barrier for the uninsured and those in developing countries, and noted critics worry that the bill will be run up when huge numbers of people who have done fine without the drugs turn to them, despite never suffering serious liver problems. “For patients who can afford them, the temptation to take the new drugs before trouble arises will be powerful,” Pollack reported.
While many outlets fell short in their initial coverage sofosbuvir—short on skepticism and questions asked—there are opportunities to do better by news consumers. The story of the new hepatitis C drug opens the door for a renewed examination of the high cost of medicines and their contributions to the high cost of medical care in the US, topics that have been buried of late in the avalanche of coverage of Obamacare screw-ups. In a fine story published in late October by New York magazine on the high cost of cancer drugs, Peter Bach, director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, told reporter Stephen Hall, “What predicts the price of the next cancer drug is the price of the last cancer drug. The only check on the system is corporate chutzpah.” A challenge, of sorts, for reporters to dig deeper into drug pricing.
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