By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger
The Veteran’s Administration (VA) has requested $1.5 billion in the Fiscal Year 2017 (FY2017) budget in order to treat more veterans for Hepatitis C (HCV). This move comes after the announcement in March that the VA would be expanding treatment protocols to include all veterans in its health system with the virus, regardless of age or progression into liver cirrhosis (Kime, 2016). This coverage expansion was covered in the HIV/HCV Co-Infection Watch Report in April, and was recently reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in the September edition.
With more than $2 billion appropriated for new HCV drugs during the past two years, the VA has treated 65,000 veterans for the virus (Wentling, 2016). One of the primary concerns expressed by veterans’ groups – Disabled Veterans (dot) Org, in particular – has been the rationing of care to only those whose liver fibrosis scores met what they feel are arbitrary measures that focus more on saving money, rather than saving lives. Tom Berge, head of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) health care panel, went so far as to say the following: “When I found out that they were prioritizing the treatments, that’s when I said they were death panels (Krause, 2016).” The “death panels” claim is reminiscent of political arguments against single-payer or Universal healthcare coverage, wherein bureaucrats essentially decide which people would live or die, based on a set of predetermined markers.
The rationing of treatment to the sickest or most financially able to pay is nothing new – public and private insurers and payers, alike, have utilized these formulae and markers in an effort to reduce costs while still maintaining the visage that they “cover” drugs, even if actual utilization on the part of patients is low. With HCV drugs, in particular, many Medicaid and ADAP programs have indicated in their respective Preferred Drug Lists (PDLs) and formularies that they cover the new Direct Acting Agents (DAAs) that are currently considered to be the Standard of Care (SOC) for HCV, only to have the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) release a guidance in November 2015 reminding Medicaid programs that “cost” was not an acceptable reason to deny coverage. Certain states – Arizona, for example – openly stated that they would not be following said guidance.
The VA currently estimates that 107,000 vets have undiagnosed or untreated HCV (Wentling, 2016), with Vietnam War-era veterans born between 1945 and 1965 being one of the demographics most likely to have been infected, as this generation (generally referred to as “Baby Boomers”) may have been the recipients of blood transfusions and organ transplants prior to the discovery and screening of blood for HCV. It wasn’t until 1992 that widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States.
While this demographic is a target for HCV screening, most new HCV infections occur as a result of sharing syringes or other equipment to inject drugs (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). Veterans are particularly susceptible to prescription opioid and heroin addiction. According to VA officials, roughly 60% of those returning from deployments from current engagements in the Middle East and 50% of older veterans suffer from chronic pain. That’s compared to about 30% of Americans, nationwide. Additionally, veterans are twice as likely to die of accidental opioid overdoses than non-veterans. Prescriptions for opioid drugs rose by 270% over a twelve-year period by 2013 (Childress, 2016). This places veterans at particular risk of contracting HCV as a result of Injection Drug Use (IDU).
Though the cost of treating HCV are currently astronomical, on a national scale, the VA does benefit from a requirement that drug manufacturers provide the system with the “best price,” though those discounts are currently shielded by Trade Secrets laws that specifically forbid programs from publicizing any deals, discounted prices, or pricing arrangements struck between pharmaceutical companies and payer programs. But, we have asked of our veterans that they make sacrifices to ensure our continued freedom and safety; is any price too high to ensure their continued health and wellbeing if and when they return from battle? I think not.
Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016, May 23). Hepatitis C FAQs for the Public. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention: Division of Viral Hepatitis. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/cfaq.htm
- Childress, S. (2016, March 28). Veterans Face Greater Risks Amid Opioid Crisis. Public Broadcasting System: Frontline: Chasing Heroin. Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/veterans-face-greater-risks-amid-opioid-crisis/
- Kime, P. (2016, March 09). VA expands hepatitis C treatment to all patients with the virus. Vienna, VA: Military Times. Retrieved from: http://www.militarytimes.com/story/veterans/2016/03/09/va-expands-hepatitis-c-treatment-all-patients-virus/81547558/
- Krause, B. (2016, September 07). HEP C – VA Calls Lack of Funding, Death Panels Use, ‘Very Controversial’. Disabled Veterans (dot) Org. Retrieved from: http://www.disabledveterans.org/2016/09/07/hep-c-va-calls-lack-funding-use-death-panels-controversial/
- Wentling, N. (2016, September 06). VA estimates 107,000 vets have undiagnosed or untreated hepatitis C. Stars and Stripes. Retrieved from: http://www.stripes.com/news/va-estimates-107-000-vets-have-undiagnosed-or-untreated-hepatitis-c-1.427437