Sen. Bernie Sanders Asks VA to Break Patents on Hep C Drugs

By John Lavitt 05/19/15

The presidential long-shot asked the federal agency to help make hep C drugs more affordable. But will they listen?

Bernie Sanders

Continuing his strong history of progressive advocacy, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is fighting to democratize access to new hepatitis C drugs. Despite demonstrating greatly improved curative rates, the new treatment regimens have proven to be prohibitively expensive.

Sanders has asked the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to use emergency powers to override the patents on high-priced hepatitis C medicines sold by several drugmakers, including Gilead Sciences and AbbVie. If necessary, Sanders wants the patents to be broken in order to reduce costs and save lives.

Although the new hepatitis C treatment regimens cure more than 90% of those infected, they cost from $63,000 to $94,500 in the United States. While discounts are sometimes provided, they are limited and often do not provide greater access to the drugs. Gilead Sciences developed the Sovaldi and Harvoni drug regimens while AbbVie sells the equally effective Viekira Pak.

According to Sanders, the VA stopped enrolling veterans who need treatment for hepatitis C due to budget constraints. The agency has already reallocated $400 million on hepatitis C drugs, but needs additional funding. Sanders, who once headed the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, notes the agency has treated about 20,000 vets for hepatitis C and needs funds for an estimated 180,000 more infected veterans who are enrolled in VA healthcare.

“I cannot think of another situation where the government-use provision [of the law that allows the VA to break the patents] should be applied,” Sanders wrote in a letter to Robert McDonald, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary. “Our nation’s veterans cannot, and should not, be denied treatment while drug companies rake in billions of dollars in profits.”

It would be unusual for the federal government to try to break a patent held by a drugmaker. After all, the pharmaceutical lobby is powerful and would not be pleased by such a turn of the screw. Sanders, however, did point out that the George W. Bush Administration persuaded Bayer to cut the price on its Cipro antibiotic in 2001. This cut in price did come at the height of the terrorist threat after letters laced with anthrax were mailed to Capitol Hill and media outlets.

The Vermont senator is not planning to ask other federal agencies to consider breaking patents. The break of the patent would not be universal, but directed only at helping veterans. Sanders wants to help the VA defray the cost of the hepatitis C treatment drugs. It is not clear whether the VA will respond positively to the senator’s request and consider breaking patents.

VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson did write a letter to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, for permission to repurpose another $400 million in its budget for the hepatitis C treatment drugs.

The VA spokesman hopes the extra funds would be sufficient to treat between 5,000 and 10,000 vets with cirrhosis depending on the treatment and duration required. As a result, up to 4,500 new cases of liver cancer and as many as 900 liver transplants could be prevented in the long run.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.