Nearly 6 million Americans have taken Paxlovid for free, courtesy of the federal government. The Pfizer pill has helped prevent many people infected with COVID-19 from being hospitalized or dying, and it may even reduce the risk of developing long COVID. But the government plans to stop footing the bill within months, and millions of people who are at the highest risk of severe illness and are least able to afford the drug — the uninsured and seniors — may have to pay the full price.
And that means fewer people will get the potentially lifesaving treatments, experts said.
“I think the numbers will go way down,” said Jill Rosenthal, director of public health policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. A bill for several hundred dollars or more would lead many people to decide the medication isn’t worth the price, she said.
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In response to the unprecedented public health crisis caused by COVID, the federal government spent billions of dollars on developing new vaccines and treatments, to swift success: Less than a year after the pandemic was declared, medical workers got their first vaccines. But as many people have refused the shots and stopped wearing masks, the virus still rages and mutates. In 2022 alone, 250,000 Americans have died from COVID, more than from strokes or diabetes.
But soon the Department of Health and Human Services will stop supplying COVID treatments, and pharmacies will purchase and bill for them the same way they do for antibiotic pills or asthma inhalers. Paxlovid is expected to hit the private market in mid-2023, according to HHS plans shared in an October meeting with state health officials and clinicians. Merck’s Lagevrio, a less-effective COVID treatment pill, and AstraZeneca’s Evusheld, a preventive therapy for the immunocompromised, are on track to be commercialized sooner, sometime in the winter.
The U.S. government has so far purchased 20 million courses of Paxlovid, priced at about $530 each, a discount for buying in bulk that Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla called “really very attractive” to the federal government in a July earnings call. The drug will cost far more on the private market, although in a statement to KHN, Pfizer declined to share the planned price. The government will also stop paying for the company’s COVID vaccine next year — those shots will quadruple in price, from the discount rate the government pays of $30 to about $120.
Bourla told investors in November that he expects the move will make Paxlovid and its COVID vaccine “a multibillion-dollars franchise.”
Nearly 9 in 10 people dying from the virus now are 65 or older. Yet federal law restricts Medicare Part D — the prescription drug program that covers nearly 50 million seniors — from covering the COVID treatment pills. The medications are meant for those most at risk of serious illness, including seniors.
Paxlovid and the other treatments are currently available under an emergency use authorization from the FDA, a fast-track review used in extraordinary situations. Although Pfizer applied for full approval in June, the process can take anywhere from several months to years. And Medicare Part D can’t cover any medications without that full stamp of approval.
Paying out-of-pocket would be “a substantial barrier” for seniors on Medicare — the very people who would benefit most from the drug, wrote federal health experts.
“From a public health perspective, and even from a health care capacity and cost perspective, it would just defy reason to not continue to make these drugs readily available,” said Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director of Massachusetts’ Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences. He’s hopeful that the federal health agency will find a way to set aside unused doses for seniors and people without insurance.
In mid-November, the White House requested that Congress approve an additional $2.5 billion for COVID therapeutics and vaccines to make sure people can afford the medications when they’re no longer free. But there’s little hope it will be approved — the Senate voted that same day to end the public health emergency and denied similar requests in recent months.