By Debbie Gregory.
Many veterans who fought to protect and defend our country have continued to fight in order to get the support they need from the federal government. Fortunately, help is on the way for veterans living with hepatitis C, one of the greatest threats facing those who have served.
Congress has earmarked $1.5 billion in the just-passed budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs to treat veterans with hepatitis C.
While hepatitis C has reached epidemic levels nationwide, the veteran community has a hepatitis C infection rate that is nearly double the national average. For veterans, this deadly, blood-borne disease is a leading cause of liver failure, liver damage and liver cancer. It impacts veterans disproportionately due to a variety of factors, including battlefield blood exposure, emergency transfusions and mandatory vaccinations in the era before hepatitis C testing became common. It is estimated that as many as 230,000 veterans suffer from hepatitis C, a rate five times greater than the general population.
The cost of treatment is staggering. Newer treatments using modern drugs with fewer side effects and a higher cure rate cost over $1,000 per pill. That means a full treatment cycle needed to cure hepatitis C can cost over $84,000 per patient. While the VA does get a 50% discount from the drug maker, it’s still very expensive to treat all the veterans afflicted with the disease.
Ironically, the drug that can effectively cure 99% of all people infected with the hepatitis C virus was invented by a doctor who worked for the VA. That doctor sold the drug to a private company for around $400 million in 2012. The doctor estimates it costs $1,400 to produce a full treatment regimen of the drug. This is the same medication that the company charges $42,000 for, which reflects the 50% discount.
The VA has been seeking funding from Congress for years to treat infected veterans. The Senate Appropriations Committee followed the lead of military veteran and senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) and approved a budget for the that included the additional $200 million to fund critical hepatitis C treatments to make up the $1.5 billion for hepatitis C over the next two years.
The new influx of funds in this year’s budget should go a long way to provide needed treatment to seriously ill veterans and help cure many veterans who are not yet showing serious symptoms.