Screening and Treating Veterans for Hepatitis C

hep c viet

By Debbie Gregory.

Veterans and organizations representing them have expressed considerable interest in the possible link between hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection and immunization with air-gun injectors or other military-related blood exposures, which were common during the Vietnam War, since transfusions were used in great numbers.

The virus also can be sexually transmitted or through intravenous drug use, which was also common in Vietnam.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has treated 65,000 veterans for the virus, but about 87,000 remain untreated and an additional 20,000 are undiagnosed.

VA officials are seeking $1.5 billion in the 2017 fiscal year to treat more veterans.

But the financial challenge is not near as great as the VA’s challenge in convincing veterans to be screened or treated for the virus. Some veterans distrust the VA, some are concerned with the stigma of hepatitis C and drug use, and some fear traditional drug treatment with severe side effects.

Some veterans who test positive for hepatitis C suffer from mental illness or substance abuse, and these issues can affect their reliability to show up for treatment.

According to Dr. David Ross, director of the VA’s hepatitis C program, “Historically, treatment rate has been low for two reasons. One, standard treatments have been awful. The drugs are horrible and don’t work that well. Secondly, a lot of patients have conditions such as depression or substance abuse problems that get in the way of treatment.”

The VA has screened 73 percent of Vietnam War-era veterans enrolled in the VA system. There are about 700,000 veterans born between 1945 and 1965 who still must be screened.

The VA has started to reach out to veterans with hepatitis C to inform them that they have the resources to test and treat them, Ross said.

“Facilities have for months now been taking lists and just calling people and saying, ‘Would you like to come in?’ ” he said. “We’re trying to let people know we’re very committed to doing this, and we have the resources to do it.”

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Funding Approved to Treat Veterans With Hepatitis C

hep c

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.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.