Monthly Archives: May 2017

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Requests Increase in HCV Funding

HEAL Blog is the recipient of the ADAP Advocacy Association’s 2015-2016 ADAP Social Media Campaign of the Year Award
By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

Cover of the FY 2018 Budget Submission

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has laid out plans to continue their open treatment policy for eligible veterans living with Hepatitis C (HCV) into 2019 and beyond. The budget request sent to Congress – Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 and FY 2019 Advance Appropriations – highlights some of the successes the program has achieved in delivering comprehensive HCV treatment using Direct Acting Agents (DAAs) to cure HCV, as well as puts forth a request for an additional $751 million in funding specifically for HCV treatment. This is a $151.2 million increase from the 2018 Advance Appropriations requested in the previous year’s document.

The VA began offering treatment to all veterans in its health system regardless of their disease stage in March 2016 (Kime, 2016), a major step forward for the program, as the high cost of newer DAA drugs have proven prohibitive to decisively moving to eradicate HCV within other government healthcare programs enrollees. This also allowed veterans who were “…waiting on an appointment for community care through the Choice program [to] turn to their local VA facility for this treatment or elect to continue to receive treatment through Choice.” The Veterans Choice Program – introduced in 2015 – is a temporary benefit that allows veterans who were enrolled in VA health care prior to August 01, 2014, or who are eligible to enroll as a recently discharged combat veteran, to receive care in their communities, rather than waiting for a VA appointment or traveling to a VA facility (Peterson, 2015).

In the document recently sent to Congress, the VA also touted some of the successes of the program:

  • As of December 2016, 78.8% of Veterans in care in the 1945-1965 Birth Cohort – those most likely to have HCV in the U.S. – were screened for HCV, and the VA estimates that an additional 15,500 veterans in VA care remain undiagnosed.
  • From January 2014 through March 2017, the VA has treated over 84,000 veterans with cure rates over 90%.
  • As of February 2017, 61,000 veterans diagnosed with HCV were potentially eligible for treatment.
  • The VA estimates that approximately 80% of all veterans with HCV enrolled in VA care will be treated by 2020. Veterans remaining in the untreated pool at that time are estimated to be more difficult to engage in care due to issues like homelessness, mental health, and substance use comorbidities, or may be uninterested or unwilling to receive HCV treatment.
  • The number of total national HCV treatments increased from approximately 2,800/year in 2011-2013, to over 30,000 in 2016. This growth reflects the additional demand for HCV treatment with DAAs, beginning the second quarter of 2014 through the present.

The VA’s approach to treating veterans is a success story that CAN be repeated by other government-run healthcare programs, but doing so will require state and Federal governments to exponentially increase funding in order to eradicate HCV within the populations most likely to become infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the vast majority of new HCV infections is a result of Injection Drug Use (IDU) among rural and suburban white men and women aged 18-35 (Dwyer, 2017). The populations are likely to also have lower incomes that may make them eligible for coverage under state Medicaid programs (in Medicaid Expansion states).

The full VA Budget Request can be viewed at the following link:

Department of Veterans Affairs – FY 2018 and FY 2019 Advance Appropriations

References:

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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.

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Pennsylvania Medicaid Opens HCV Treatment to Virtually All HCV Patients

HEAL Blog is the recipient of the ADAP Advocacy Association’s 2015-2016 ADAP Social Media Campaign of the Year Award
By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

On May 16th, 2017, Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services (DHS) announced changes to the state’s Medicaid policy that will expand coverage to treat virtually all enrolled clients living with Hepatitis C (HCV). Beginning July 1st, 2017, HCV-infected beneficiaries with liver scoring of F1 will become eligible for treatment coverage for the newer Direct Acting Agents (DAAs) that are highly effective, easily tolerate, and also very expensive. Beginning January 1st, 2018, clients with liver scoring of F0 will become eligible for treatment coverage. Prior to the July 1st policy change, treatment coverage will be available only to clients whose liver scoring ranges F2 to F4, unless other mitigating complications exist that warrant immediate treatment.

These changes come in response to a number of factors, most notably the 290% increase in new HCV infections between 2014 and 2015 reported by the CDC earlier this month. The deciding factor in this case, as in many other state Medicaid decisions, was the threat of a class action lawsuit. Attorneys from the Center for Health Law & Policy Innovation at Harvard Law School, the Pennsylvania Health Law Project, Community Legal Services, and Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, & Feinberg, LLC sent a formal demand letter in late 2016 on behalf of their clients, Pennsylvania Medicaid recipients. This letter notified DHS that unless it agreed to remove “categorical coverage exclusions” of HCV medical cures from its Medicaid policy, the state could face a Federal class action law suit (Harvard Law School, 2017).

For the uninitiated, a little explanation is likely in order on the topic of “F scoring.” The “F” stands for fibrosis – the thickening and scarring of connective tissue, usually the result of injury. In relation to the liver, F scoring describes the length in expansion of fibrotic areas between portal tracts (also known as “portal triads”), and these changes are staged at F0 (No fibrosis) to F4 (Cirrhosis) (Hepatitis C Online, 2015). Patients with F4 Cirrhosis is characterized by a loss of liver cells and irreversible scarring of the liver. A healthy liver regulates the composition of blood, including the amounts of sugar (glucose), protein, and fat that enter the bloodstream. It also removes bilirubin, ammonia, and other toxins from the blood (WebMD, n.d.). A cirrhotic liver cannot properly perform these functions, leaving the patient susceptible to numerous painful and life threatening illnesses and side effects of failing or failed liver function.

The changes to Pennsylvania’s Medicaid program make it one of the first in the nation to adequately address the burgeoning HCV epidemic by treating patients early in the disease cycle. While the newer DAA drugs are all very expensive, the cost of curing patients outright, rather than continuing to pay for their long-term health degradation while waiting for their liver to become scarred enough to treat their HCV. Aside from being costly, it is also inhumane. While HIV patients underwent similar treatment in relation to the recommendation of when they begin Antiretroviral Therapies (ARTs), eventually we came to the realization that treating the disease early would result in fewer long-term complications for HIV patients. This way of thinking in terms of HCV patients is likelier to come more quickly, now that we have medically curative treatments.

References:

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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.

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A Conversation About HCV in Incarcerated and Post-Incarceration Settings

HEAL Blog is the recipient of the ADAP Advocacy Association’s 2015-2016 ADAP Social Media Campaign of the Year Award
By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

On Thursday, May 11th, the Community Access National Network (CANN) hosted a Community Roundtable on Linkages to Care for Current/Former Incarcerated Citizens Living with Hepatitis C (HCV). Three speakers, including myself, gave presentations detailing the various barriers, opportunities, and complications that surround ensuring that incarcerated citizens receive the car to which they are legally entitled under the 8th Amendment’s “…cruel and unusual punishment” provision.

State/Federal HCV-Related Lawsuits Involving Prisons (2007-2017). At least 18 Class-Action and Civil Rights Action lawsuits were filed in 11 states between 2007-2017.

My presentation covered the legal aspect of treating HCV in prisons and jails, much of which I detailed in last week’s HEAL Blog; as such, I will spend this blog discussing the information presented by my peers:

Wayne Turner, Senior Attorney with the National Health Law Program, delivered an excellent and thorough explanation of how Medicaid-eligible incarcerated persons can have their treatment paid for through the Medicaid program if they are taken to an outside facility for care. What this means is that, using a provision written into the Medicaid law, so long as the prisoner is treated at a hospital outside of their incarceration facility, their treatment and care can be covered and paid for through the Medicaid program, rather than relying upon the prison healthcare and pharmacy budgets.

This has the potential to be a hugely beneficial resource for prisons, as treating HCV is very costly. It also raises an interesting question – would this mean that prisoners can be taken to hospitals, be prescribed one of the new Direct Acting Agents (DAAs) to treat their HCV at the hospital, and fill that prescription at the hospital pharmacy and have the drug covered by Medicaid, rather than the prison pharmacy budget? It’s an interesting question, and could be the solution needed to ensure that inmates receive the care they need.

A. Toni Young, President and CEO of the Community Education Group, also delivered a rousing call to action, discussing her work in trying to figure out how to improve access to Medicaid and HCV education both inside the prison system and for the general population. What this really requires, she posits, is that medical professionals as well as Federal, state, and local governments dramatically increase education campaigns to teach people about HCV, and most importantly, how to avoid contracting the disease, both inside and outside of prison settings.

What makes this approach vitally important is that HCV education is something that is sorely lacking in the areas that are hardest hit; not just HCV education, really – healthcare literacy in general is an issue. As such, we must, as Toni suggested, work on ways to get people to actually care about what we’re trying to teach; get them to understand that learning about and preventing the spread of HCV will save their lives.

Another fantastic point brought to the fore by Elizabeth Paukstis, Public Policy Director at the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable, was that, despite advocates calls for prisons to treat everyone, the reality is stark – the budgets are what they are, and no matter how often or loudly we insist that they treat inmates with HCV, many states simply do not have the resources to do. At that point, litigation is really the only route that many inmates can take to ensure that they receive treatment.

This Community Roundtable was a fantastic event, and I look forward to participating in future roundtables to figure out the best ways in which we can help combat the HCV epidemic.

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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.

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Linkages to Care for Current/Former Incarcerated Citizens Living with Hepatitis C

HEAL Blog is the recipient of the ADAP Advocacy Association’s 2015-2016 ADAP Social Media Campaign of the Year Award
By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

The Community Access National Network (CANN) will be hosting a roundtable at the headquarters of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) on Thursday, May 11th, 2017, on the topic of Hepatitis C (HCV) in Incarcerated Populations. The roundtable will focus on various aspects of treated HCV in prison and jail settings, including the Constitutional requirement that all inmates receive treatment, as well as various barriers that prevent inmates from receiving screening and treatment.

Invite for the Community Roundtable on Linkages to Care for Current/Former Incarcerated Citizens Living with Hepatitis C

Current estimates indicate that between 10-35% of inmates are infected with HCV, and that roughly half of those inmates don’t know that they’re infected. These estimates are, however, limited by inconsistent or non-existent screening protocols, reporting requirements, and various bureaucratic hurdles that prevent inmates from being screened. Furthermore, there are no penalties in place that hold prison and jail systems accountable for failing to screen inmates, which often results in costly lawsuits.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons released a new set of screening guidelines for HCV in October 2016, which included the recommendation that all prisons and jails adopt an “Opt-Out” screening process (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2016). This strategy requires that HCV screening becomes part of a routine practice, and that inmates must provide “informed refusal” in order not to be screened. This strategy would be instrumental in combating the HCV epidemic running rampant among inmate populations, as well as for data gathering purposes.

Implementing this strategy across all prisons and jails in the U.S. in a difficult proposal, in no small part because it will be expensive. What makes it so expensive is that screening, itself, isn’t cheap – at least not the confirmatory tests; additionally, if prisons and jails discover that an inmate has HCV, or any other life-threatening illness, they are required under the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to treat that inmate’s illness (Estelle v. Gamble). That last part can cost prison systems tens of thousands of dollars fear each infected inmate – costs that will explode pharmacy and healthcare budgets in the short-term, but will save money in the long-term.

Furthermore, prisons appear to be extremely inconsistent about what prices they pay for drugs. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a report in September 2016 per-patient cost paid by state prisons to treat HCV using Gilead’s Harvoni: the prices ranged from $46,021 in North Dakota to $91,014 in Georgia (Loftus & Fields, 2016). These numbers indicate the need for more price stabilization in the U.S. prison systems, or at the very least, consolidated price negotiation.

While the roundtable is open to the public, seating is limited. Interested parties can sign up for the event at the following address: http://tiicann.org/events.html

References:

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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.

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Emory University and CDC Reveal HepVu

HEAL Blog is the recipient of the ADAP Advocacy Association’s 2015-2016 ADAP Social Media Campaign of the Year Award
By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

The latest tool in Viral Hepatitis advocacy has arrived: HepVu (www.hepvu.org). A project of Emory University’s Coalition for Applied Modeling for Prevention (CAMP) – supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – HepVu is an interactive website that provides various data related to Viral Hepatitis (VH), with the greatest emphasis being placed upon Hepatitis C (HCV), the least accurately reported variant in the U.S.

The website features interactive maps detailing estimated prevalence data, rates of infection, mortality data, and regional impacts and comparisons on both the national and state levels. While HCV data released by the annual National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) conducted by the CDC produces national estimates, HepVu is the first analysis that uses a more nuanced formula that includes NHANES data, but also examines state-level reporting and statistics that includes electronic medical records (EMRs), insurance claims, and HCV-related mortality.

Other site features include infographics, explanations about the various types of VH, and the ability to print and download maps and data for use in advocacy efforts and reports. Dr. Patrick Sullivan, one of the researchers associated with creating the project, stated that making the site a resource for HCV-related advocacy and reporting efforts was an essential step in creating HepVu. This is the first HCV-related website (of which I am aware) that makes these data easily available for reprinting and citation purposes.

The contributing researchers to the website admit that this reporting is likely well below the actual prevalence and rates of infection, because screening, reporting, and tracking vary in quality and amount of data from state to state, in no small part because of a lack of Federal and state funding for HCV reporting, as well as adequate and standardized reporting requirements set by the CDC. Part of what makes this data so important is that it serves as a great starting point for advocating for increased funding for reporting and tracking – something that Congress has been slow to address, despite large increases in funding to address America’s opioid and heroin abuse crisis, the leading contributor to the rise in new HCV infections.

The primary limitation of the data presented on HepVu (and in general) is age: the vast majority of the data centers on 2010 and 2014 – seven and three years old, respectively. This complaint has been a sticking point for advocates and HCV-related organizations for several years, particularly because of the release of easily tolerated and highly effective Direct Acting Agents (DAAs) that serve as a curative treatment for HCV. Now that we have these tools to eradicate HCV, it is imperative that we begin operating on current information, rather than relying upon data that predates two presidential elections. This means that both Federal and state governments are going to have to step up to the plate and begin adequately funding screening, reporting, and tracking efforts, regardless of the high cost of these drugs.

HepVu is an excellent starting point, despite the data limitations, and so long as the statistics and information are regularly updated with more current information, it has the potential to become an invaluable tool in combating HCV and hopefully eradicating the virus from the U.S., entirely.

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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.

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