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Louisiana Health Secretary Facing Public Health Crisis Due to Expensive Medicines

Parts of Louisiana have the worst public health outcomes in the United States. There are two main contributors to this problem: poverty and poor health, leading to high rates of obesity, premature births, and high rates of Hepatitis C, a liver-damaging virus often gotten by drug uses. Hepatitis C can cause cirrhosis and cancer, but several new medicines can cure this disease. However, these drugs are so expensive that Louisiana Health Secretary Rebekah Gee is considering a radical step: asking the federal government to intervene and lower drug prices, possibly by overriding the patents drug companies have on the medicines.

The list prices for the drugs are staggering--up to $94,500 for twelve weeks of treatment. Louisiana gets rebates from the federal government to pay for those prices, but it still can only afford to treat patients with significant liver damage who are at danger of getting worse. The government has laid out specific guidelines: the virus has to have caused lots of harm and transformed someone's liver from being smooth and healthy into a leathery organ with lumps and swelling. In 2016, out of the 35,000 patients, it was therefore only treating 324 of them. Medicaid is actually refusing to pay for people's prescriptions because they are not sick enough; because of these high drug prices, the government is having to decide whom it can afford to treat and whom it can't.

Gee is debating whether to ask the federal government to invoke a century-old law that allows the government to use patents at a reasonable cost. The law allows the federal government to employ drug patents for the government's own use, and it could pay the company as little as $1,000 for twelve weeks of treatment. This option would ensure tens of thousands of people in Louisiana could access Hepatitis C drugs and other medicines. Drug companies have fiercely criticized this proposal and state it would destroy innovation, undermine their business models, and reduce chances of finding the next miracle cure.

If the Better Care Reconciliation Act passes, it would probably make matters worse. The bill reduces Medicaid spending and forces already cash-strapped states to pay more healthcare costs. Health policy experts urge Secretary Gee to take action. What good is a miracle cure for a disease if it is so expensive that patients cannot access it?

We urge the Secretary and federal government to take action to reduce drug prices and ensure patients have access to affordable medicines. Invoking this law will help solve a public health crisis in Louisiana and beyond.

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