WASHINGTON, May 9 (UPI) -- The business practices of medicine are keeping people with hepatitis C sick longer in the interest of saving money in the short term, but the cost of treating them when they get worse costs a lot more.
Treating and curing hepatitis C patients would likely cost a lot of money up front, but researchers say the nearly $1 trillion saved over the next two decades and attention paid to other diseases could result in lives saved and a healthier populace, researchers at the University of Southern California found in a series of studies published in the American Journal of Managed Care.
Hepatitis C is caused by a virus that attacks the liver, with roughly half the 3.5 million Americans who have it unaware they are infected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A three-month course of treatment for hepatitis C runs between $54,600 and $94,500, according to the Boston Globe, which reports many insurance companies wait as long as possible to approve paying for the treatment.
Even in the case of Medicare, patients have to purchase a Part D plan, which includes copays, deductibles and other authorization, limiting treatment in similar ways as private insurers.
"Many policymakers have focused on what they see as a high price for three months of therapy, but the value of curing hepatitis C lasts a lifetime," Darius Lakdawalla, a professor at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, in a press release.
In the three studies, funded by the pharmaceutical company AbbVie Inc., which makes one of the two major hepatitis C drugs on the market, researchers found more than $800 billion could be saved on healthcare over 20 years.
If current methods continue, the researchers said Medicare may have to foot the bill for treating patients in the long-term because private insurers appear unwilling to fund the treatment. In figuring the potential savings, researchers say private insurers would save $10 to $14 billion in the next 20 years, and Medicare would save between $4 billion and $11 billion. Private insurers would have to absorb significant up-front costs if they did so, however.
The other two studies found treating patients for hepatitis C would prevent later stage disease requiring a liver transplant, allowing people with other disease who need the organs to receive them. The researchers estimate 10,490 fewer hepatitis C-related transplants would be needed and 7,321 livers could be given to other people with liver diseases between now and 2035, and overall savings to the healthcare industry would be about $824 billion.
"HCV treatment is expensive, but it is also extraordinarily effective," Lakdawalla wrote in an editorial published with the studies. "Although investing in it will impose real costs on society, those costs are justified by even larger downstream benefits."