Skip to main content

We all pay for $1,000 a pill drug

By Karen Ignagni
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2110 GMT (0510 HKT)
Activists protest drug maker Gilead Sciences to denounce the price of hepatitis C drug Sovaldi in April in Montpellier, France.
Activists protest drug maker Gilead Sciences to denounce the price of hepatitis C drug Sovaldi in April in Montpellier, France.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Karen Ignagni: A new drug holds hope in eliminating epidemic of hepatitis C in U.S.
  • Ignagni: But drug costs outrageous $1,000 per pill, or $84,000 for entire treatment
  • She warns cost will raise premiums and prices all across the heath care spectrum
  • Ignagni: Drug makers must stop trend of charging astronomical prices that hurt us all

Editor's note: Karen Ignagni is president and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade group for the health insurance industry. She directed the AFL-CIO's Department of Employee Benefits and was a professional staff member on the U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and worked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Health care experts recently gathered at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to discuss the public health crisis of hepatitis C, which is ravaging communities across America, and the budding hope that we may soon be able to eliminate it with a prescription medicine called Sovaldi.

Hepatitis C, a chronic, potentially fatal liver disease, afflicts more than 3 million Americans. Solving the hepatitis C epidemic is a goal we should all embrace, which is why health plans are hard at work identifying at-risk patients so they can be screened and receive necessary treatment.

Karen Ignagni
Karen Ignagni

Sovaldi, the brand name for sofosbuvir, holds remarkable promise. But the manufacturer of this drug, Gilead Sciences, has created an enormous obstacle that is straining our health care system: its eye-popping price.

At $1,000 per pill, Sovaldi costs $84,000 for a single course of treatment, and well over $100,000 when combined with other medications, as is generally the case. If every person with hepatitis C were treated with Sovaldi alone at this price, the cost would be more than $268 billion. For some perspective, consider that in 2012, the United States spent $263 billion for all prescription drugs.

This pricing, which Gilead attempts to justify as the cost of medical advancement, will have a tsunami effect across our entire health care system. Because the cost of health insurance is fundamentally a reflection of the price of health care services, the excessive price of Sovaldi unavoidably puts upward pressure on premiums for everyone with private coverage. It will also strain state Medicaid and Department of Veterans Affairs programs.

A recent analysis found that senior citizens on Medicare Part D could see premiums as much as 8% higher next year because of the price of this one drug. And it's been projected that California's Medicaid spending on Sovaldi and the accompanying drugs could potentially outpace what the state spends in a year on K-12 and secondary education combined.

High-priced drugs are not a new phenomenon. Drug makers have long used monopolies to inflate prices. But the trend with so-called specialty drugs is a game changer. Startling as the price of Sovaldi is, it's just the canary in the coal mine.

More and more specialty drugs are coming on the market, with tremendous promise to save and improve lives but also with exorbitant price tags. Although these specialty drugs only account for 1% of the prescription drugs in this country, they already represent 25% of the total cost, on the way to 50%.

This pricing will have a tsunami effect across our entire health care system.
Karen Ignagni

Until now, policymakers and stakeholders have looked the other way as specialty drug prices have gone higher and higher. In fact, any discussion of price has been quashed as an assault on innovation.

But asking for a blank check in the name of innovation won't work anymore. Not when it stands in the way of solving a public health crisis. Not when it threatens state Medicaid budgets and the success of Medicare Part D, and not when the pricing threatens the very innovation that is giving so many hope.

Opinion: Hepatitis drugs save money in long run

We cannot have sustainable medical innovation in America without prices that the health care system can sustain. Just think, could we have eradicated polio or smallpox if the treatments were priced like hepatitis C?

Today's public health challenge is to find a balance that rewards research and development and brings breakthroughs to patients, without upending family budgets, employer benefit systems and crucial public programs. That's going to require an end to the sky's-the-limit pricing that threatens the progress we all want.

Now is the time for stakeholders to begin the process of working together to meet this challenge.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2334 GMT (0734 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT