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Leonardo Brown, center, the Human Resources director for Smith County, speaks at a meeting of the Smith County Commissioners Court on March 27, 2018 in Tyler, Texas. On the left is Ann Wilson, the county auditor. (Erin Mansfield/Tyler Morning Telegraph)

Smith County officials voted unanimously on Tuesday to stop paying for employees to get a drug for serious illnesses after the cost has increased to $35,000.

Members of the Smith County Commissioners Court voted to remove Acthar Injections from the county's prescription drug benefit plan.

The drug treats lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, symptoms of sarcoidosis, infantile spasms and other serious conditions, according to the drug manufacturer’s website.

Leonardo Brown, the county's human resources director, said there are other, less expensive drugs that county employees can get to treat those conditions that are covered under the county's benefits plan.

“The bottom line with this particular medication is it’s a very high-cost medication,” Brown said. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re allowing people to have services that they need on the plan while utilizing cost-effective measures to do that.

“This does not fall under that combination of cost-efficient, and our benefits consultants have brought this to our attention,” Brown said. “Just for purposes of this conversation, this medication started out at $10 a vial, and now it’s up to $35,000.”

Commissioner JoAnn Hampton, D-Tyler, told Brown she did not want to vote to remove the drug from the plan unless the county’s prescription drug plan offers employees viable alternatives.

“I have a real problem with excluding the medication without another medication to replace it,” Hampton said. She pointed to the drug’s use for multiple sclerosis and other serious conditions.

“I agree that this is an astronomical price, but I also look at chemo drugs, and I know how much they cost, and so are we at some point going to say, ‘Well, patients can’t receive chemotherapy because of the cost of the drug?’” Hampton asked.

Brown said the county’s drug plan only allows it to stop covering expensive drugs when there are alternatives. He said there are alternatives, and that he would provide Hampton with a list of those drugs in the near future.

“When there is other available coverage that is cost-effective that is provided, then you use that, or you pay the difference yourself,” Brown said. “(If) there is no medication that would cover this, our plan had language that says, ‘We cover it.’”

Commissioner Terry Phillips, R-Tyler, said cannabis oils, which come from marijuana plants, would be a suitable alternative to the medication. He lamented that use of cannabis oils is strictly controlled in Texas.

“If our legislators would loosen up a little bit on the cannabis oils, too, that would help greatly,” Phillips said. “I know that’s a different discussion, but it’s really, really a good deal for these people that have these seizures and stuff.”

TWITTER and INSTAGRAM: @_erinmansfield

Government Reporter

Erin came to Tyler from Vermont, where she worked for VTDigger.org and previously the Rutland Herald. She received her B.A. in Economics and Spanish from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she also attended journalism school.

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