By Stuart Pfeifer

Philadelphia's transit system is taking on Gilead Sciences Inc. over its sky-high pricing of the breakthrough hepatitis C drug Sovaldi.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority alleged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Philadelphia that Gilead is engaging in "price gouging" by charging $1,000 a pill, or $84,000 for a standard 12-week treatment.

"This case involves a drug manufacturer's attempt to exploit the patient laws by selectively charging exorbitant prices for its life-saving hepatitis-C drug," the transit system said in the lawsuit.

Gilead of Foster City, Calif., declined to comment on the lawsuit. It has previously defended the pricing, noting that it is far less costly than liver transplants, which are often required if hepatitis C is left unchecked.

The same 12-week dose costs just $900 in Egypt, about 99% lower than the U.S. price, the lawsuit said. Gilead has also provided significant discounts to some U.S. government agencies, such as the Bureau of Prisons, but declines to do so for many customers.

The pricing has "effectively priced some consumers and government programs alike out of the Sovaldi market, thereby preventing needed recipients from obtaining this critical drug," the transit agency said.

The Philadelphia transit system maintains a health plan for employees and has paid $2.4 million for Sovaldi since its introduction.

Hepatitis C is a virus that is transmitted by coming in contact with infected blood, often through shared needles, a blood transfusion or sexual contact. The disease can cause cirrhosis or liver cancer and may require a liver transplant.

The disease affects about 3 million people in the United States and is the leading cause of liver transplants in the nation.

Before Sovaldi, other treatments were effective on about 50% of patients. Sovaldi is effective in about 80% to 90% of cases with far fewer complications.

The lawsuit seeks reimbursement of "unjust" profits, plus penalties and interest.

(c)2014 the Los Angeles Times