The Fair Pricing Coalition (FPC) today expressed appreciation for Merck’s & Co. Inc.’s decision to launch its new curative hepatitis C (HCV) treatment, Zepatier, at a price below existing HCV treatments in a tacit acknowledgement that existing high prices have hurt patients and are untenable for the market. Zepatier’s $54,600 list price is lower than the egregious prices for Gilead Sciences’ Harvoni ($94,500) and AbbVie’s Viekira Pak ($83,319), and represents a step in the right direction. Even at this price, however, the FPC is still concerned that patients may not be able to afford to cure their HCV – preventing the U.S. from ending the HCV epidemic and increasing system-wide healthcare costs.
Merck’s lower price follows substantial public and Congressional scrutiny of HCV treatments. After an exhaustive investigation, the Wyden-Grassley Senate Finance Committee report concluded that Gilead Sciences’ HCV pricing was focused on “maximizing revenue,” not “fostering broad, affordable access.” While Merck’s lower price may increase patient access to HCV treatments, we hope that Merck will work to ensure that prior approval restrictions instituted by public and private payers will be eliminated once and for all.
“High costs of treatment have led insurers to severely restrict patient access to curative HCV treatment,” said FPC Co-Chair Lynda Dee. “While companies insist that patients will not bear the full cost of treatment, many patients are not receiving any treatment at all because insurers refuse to pay these exorbitant prices. Merck’s willingness to set Zepatier’s initial price lower than the competition must be followed with negotiated insurer discounts that allow patients easy access with minimal cost-sharing.”
As the population with HCV ages, public programs like Medicare are facing unprecedented costs from curative treatments. “Because Medicare is not allowed to negotiate for lower drug prices, Medicare spending exists at the whim of drug manufacturers,” explained FPC member Emalie Huriaux. “These costs are passed on, in part, to patients, who must pay a percentage of the drug’s cost as co-insurance. Merck’s lower price may reduce some Medicare costs, but patients will still face massive cost-sharing, hurting their ability to access necessary treatment.” We hope Merck will offer Medicare and Medicaid programs additional rebates so that very needy patients will be able to access this exciting new HCV regimen.
Excessive HCV prices have led insurers to routinely deny patient access to lifesaving HCV treatment, including refusing treatment to patients without advanced fibrosis or those who have recent histories of substance use. These practices have no medical basis. The FPC commends Merck for studying the efficacy of Zepatier in patients who use drugs. For any denials by insurers, HCV drug manufacturers must ensure broad patient assistance programs are available to fill in the gaps, guaranteeing that patients receive necessary treatment.
“Recently, Gilead Sciences changed its patient assistance program to refuse free treatment to individuals denied access by their insurer,” said FPC member Tim Horn. “We hope that Merck’s lower pricing means they will reject this deplorable practice and provide free access to patients denied by public and private payers.”
“We will be watching closely to ensure that Merck has robust patient assistance and co-pay assistance programs,” added FPC co-chair Murray Penner. “Merck must ensure that all patients, including Medicaid patients, often the most financially needy of all, have access to Zepatier.”
Contact: Lynda Dee