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HEALTHCARE FUNDING

Spanish hepatitis C patients to march for access to expensive new drugs

Podemos leader asks sufferers to go with him to Brussels to explain their plight to MEPs

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias with members of a hepatitis C support group.
Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias with members of a hepatitis C support group.

Hepatitis C patients will march in Madrid on Saturday to demand access to expensive new drugs that the government only offers sparingly through the public health system.

“We will demand to be seen by [Prime Minister Mariano] Rajoy,” said Mario Cortés, president of the support group Plataforma de Afectados por la Hepatitis C, which is organizing the rally.

This group has been staging a sit-in at the capital’s 12 de Octubre hospital for the last 20 days, and is now ready to take its demands right to La Moncloa prime ministerial palace.

Its fight has been taken up by other hepatitis C sufferers in Girona, who locked themselves inside Josep Trueta hospital on January 1.

There is a name for those who privatize the health system: traitors to their homeland”

Pablo Iglesias, Podemos leader

And Cortés is promising more action, including hunger strikes if necessary, to ensure that all patients, not just terminal ones, get treated with a combination of drugs that has a cure rate of up to 95 percent, but costs €25,000 for a 12-week session.

There are around 800,000 people living with hepatitis C in Spain, of whom 35,000 have developed cirrhosis, according to the association. The government lowers that total figure to around 480,000, of whom just 50,000 have been diagnosed.

Two of the drugs in question, sofosbuvir (which is marketed as Sovaldi in Spain) and simeprevir (Olysio), have entered the public financing system, meaning that they have a fixed price that was negotiated with the pharmaceuticals.

When the Health Ministry first announced the introduction of Sovaldi, it said it would earmark €125 million to subsidize the treatment the first year, which would allow around 4,900 patients to receive it. But that figure has since varied, with a government official recently speaking of up to 7,000 treatments.

Hepatitis C sufferers' plight has also been taken up by Podemos, the new Spanish grassroots party that promises to sweep corrupt politicians off the map at the next general elections. Its leader, Pablo Iglesias, met with protestors on Monday and asked them to go to Brussels with him to explain their situation to the European Parliament.

Iglesias, whose party has five seats in the EU chamber, said it was important to show MEPs “the social consequences of their spending cut policies.”

"Nobody should die because they are not being treated with a medication that already exists,” he added.

According to Iglesias, whose organization has become one of Spain’s leading parties by membership despite being less than a year old and not yet having any parliamentary representation, the hepatitis C case underscores a crucial debate.

“Who should a government protect?” he said, pitting pharmaceutical companies’ right to make money against citizens’ “right to be alive.”

“In the middle of these two interests there is a government, who must be asked the following question: whose side are you on?” said Iglesias. “There is a name for those who privatize the health system: traitors to their homeland.”