Hepatitis C (hep C) is an infection caused by a virus that is transmitted through contact with blood containing the virus. It causes liver inflammation and complications like cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver damage.
Symptoms range from mild to severe, and while some people have an acute infection — where the virus clears on its own within weeks — others live with chronic hepatitis.
It’s possible to cure chronic hep C with medication. But treatment is expensive (to the tune of $54,000 or more, in some cases), especially if you don’t have insurance.
Treatment for hep C involves the use of antiviral drugs, which are medications that help the body fight off different viruses. Antiviral treatment often lasts 8 to 12 weeks.
But since hep C treatment is expensive, medications aren’t always as accessible to those without insurance. Here’s what you can do if you don’t have insurance.
1. Shop health insurance plans
Even though health insurance can be expensive, your monthly premium through an employer might be considerably less than the cost of treating hep C without it. If that’s not an option, you can research coverage options on the U.S. Health Insurance Marketplace during open enrollment periods.
Keep in mind, though, even with private or individual health insurance, your provider might not cover the cost of hep C treatment until you’re very sick, and only if you don’t use drugs or alcohol. Be sure to find out all you can about your coverage before applying.
2. Enroll in a government health plan
If you can’t get private health insurance, explore U.S. government health benefits. Besides looking into the Health Insurance Marketplace, if you’re 65 or older or have a disability, you might qualify for Medicare, which is a federal health insurance program. Also, your income could qualify you for your state’s Medicaid program. Veterans can research VA health benefits, too.
3. Apply for patient assistance programs
Another option is patient assistance programs.These are sponsored by pharmaceutical companies and give those in low-income households access to medications.
Keep in mind that you’re only eligible for patient assistance programs if you are not enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid, or another government prescription plan. These programs provide financial assistance, reducing your copays and coinsurance for medication.
Assistance varies, so you’ll need to contact drug companies directly to learn about their specific programs. Some examples include:
- sofosbuvir/velpatasvir (Epclusa)
- ledipasvir/sofosbuvir (Harvoni)
- glecaprevir/pibrentasvir (Mavyret)
- ribavirin (Moderiba)
- daclatasvir (Daklinza)
- elbasvir/grazoprevir (Zepatier)
The National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable also provides information on getting financial assistance or copay relief.
4. Clinical trials
Talk with your liver specialist to see if you’re eligible for upcoming hep C clinical trials. These trials study the safety and efficacy of certain antiviral medications in the treatment of hep C. You can visit Clinicaltrials.gov to find eligible studies, too.
Although the trial covers the cost of research-related treatments and testing, you’re financially responsible for your travel costs and other expenses, like meals. You’re also responsible for routine lab tests and doctor’s visits you need during the trial. Make sure to talk with your liver specialist before enrolling in a clinical trial to understand the costs associated with it.
It’s possible to get free hep C medication (or lower cost medication) through a patient assistance program. But you must meet specific requirements. It’s also important to check what additional costs you might be responsible for when enrolling in this type of program.
Eligibility requirements differ by the pharmaceutical company. They determine eligibility based on your income from the previous year and household size.
Typically, those with incomes below the federal poverty line qualify. For example, a two-person household earning $17,420 a year or less might qualify for free medication, as well as a four-person household with an income of $26,500 a year or less.
Be prepared to provide proof of income before receiving free or discounted medication. The company will verify your current income and review your most recent federal tax return.
The cost of hep C treatment varies depending on the type of drug. However, an 8- to 12-week course can range from $54,000 to $95,000 (or higher).
For example, the price of a 12-week course of Zepatier can be as much as $54,600, and a 12-week course of Harvoni can cost as much as $94,500.
Without insurance, you’re responsible for the full amount out-of-pocket. And even with insurance, the cost can range into the thousands, after adding in drug copays and coinsurance.
If you qualify for patient assistant programs, you might receive your medication for as little as $5 (or less) out-of-pocket.
Hep C drugs are in high demand, with an estimated 2.4 million people in the United States living with the virus. This contributes to the high cost of medications.
The cost of research and development of the drugs is expensive, too. And since these medications have a high cure rate — and there isn’t a lot of competition — there’s little incentive for drug companies to lower the cost.
Hep C can cause severe complications like liver cancer and liver failure. Treatment is often successful, yet the high cost of medication makes these drugs inaccessible for many, especially those without insurance.
But you have options if you can’t afford treatment. Start by researching private health insurance and government health plans. If these aren’t an option, reach out to drug companies directly. Depending on your income and family size, you might qualify for patient assistant programs.