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With More Funding, VA to Cover Vets Requiring Hepatitis C Treatments

House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller

The Veterans Affairs Department said Wednesday it will now be able to cover the costs of caring for all veterans with hepatitis C for the current fiscal year, regardless of the stage of the patient's liver disease.

VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin said the expanded care is the result of increased funding from Congress as well as reduced drug prices.

The department last year allocated $696 million for new hepatitis C drugs, accounting for 17 percent of the VA's total pharmacy budget. In fiscal 2016, which began Oct. 1, the VA expects to spend about $1 billion on hepatitis C drugs.

"We're honored to be able to expand treatment for Veterans who are afflicted with hepatitis C," Shulkin said in a statement.  "To manage limited resources previously, we established treatment priority for the sickest patients."

With the expansion, the VA now expects many more veterans will be started on hepatitis C treatment every week through the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The department statement did not address 2017 costs, though it has requested $1.5 billion in its next-year's budget for the hepatitis C treatments and clinical resources.

The statement also didn't indicate whether the reduced drug prices it mentions reflect a change from what was cited during a congressional hearing in January, when it was estimated VA was paying about $40,000 per veteran for a 12-week course of treatment.

Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida and chairman of the House panel, accused the company that manufactures the drug, known as Sofosbuvir or Sovaldi, of price gouging. The same drug and course of treatment cost about $900 per person in some foreign countries.

The VA has claimed the drug was developed by one of its own researchers, Dr. Raymond Schinazi, who worked for the VA Medical Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Schinazi, who also worked for Emory University and also operated his own research laboratory, told Military.com he did not develop the drug for the VA.

Schinazi sold his company, Pharmasset -- and with it the drug -- to Gilead Sciences of California in 2011, earning more than $400 million when the deal went through.

The VA has long been a leader in screening for and treating hepatitis C, many of whose sufferers have been Vietnam veterans. Shulkin said the VA has treated more than 76,000 veterans infected with hepatitis C and has cured about 60,000.

--Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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