SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois has waded into a national debate about the cost of a controversial new drug designed to cure people of hepatitis C.
Faced with thousands of prison inmates suffering from the deadly virus, the Illinois Department of Corrections recently approved the use of a drug called Sovaldi, which has a cure rate in some clinical studies of 95 percent.
But, with documents showing the baseline cost of treatment within Corrections facilities starting at $61,000, questions are being raised about the price tag that goes along with the pills.
The maker of the drug, Gilead Sciences Inc., has been asked by members of Congress to explain its price structure. One health insurer called the cost "outrageous."
In Illinois, where a budget crunch has officials talking about releasing as many as 15,500 inmates if the state's temporary tax hike isn't made permanent, it isn't clear how much money the new drug might cost.
Officials say there are an estimated 100 to 150 inmates at each of the state's 25 prisons who have the disease.
But, because each case is different based on the extent of the disease, the overall health of the inmate and the length of their sentence, Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer said the state cannot determine the extent Sovaldi will be used.
"Please keep in mind it is impossible to say how many inmates will be treated in a particular way or with a particular drug," Shaer said. "IDOC has decided, yes, these drugs will be used, when appropriate. We cannot determine the extent to which they will be used."
Documents show the state estimates the cost of treating an inmate with Sovaldi will range from $61,000 to $122,000.
If one-third of the infected inmates were put on a regimen at the low-end cost, it would result in a $61 million bill to taxpayers. Currently, the cost of treating inmates with HIV and hepatitis C is about $8 million, Shaer said.
Hepatitis C, a life-threatening blood-borne infection, is most commonly linked to infected needles used for injecting drugs.
It also has been linked to infected needles used for prison tattoos and body piercings. Without treatment, it can lead to liver failure and death.
As part of a revamped attack on hepatitis C, Illinois recently altered its protocol for dealing with the virus. When inmates are admitted to the system, they will be screened for hepatitis C unless they choose not to be. Those diagnosed with the infection will be assessed to determine the best course of treatment.
The new procedure had previously been recommended by a Chicago-based prison watchdog organization.
John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, said undiagnosed inmates can infect other prisoners, as well as members of the general public when they are released.
Each of those increase mortality and boost the cost of health care, Maki added.
Plus, Maki added, "The state is constitutionally obligated to provide this treatment."
State Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, said the problem of paying for the drug is not limited to the state prison system.
"It's a looming problem for all of health care," Harris said. "It's something we're going to have to confront."