2016 Veterans Affairs Budget Includes Money For Hepatitis C Treatment

Pills, syringe, and cough syrup.

Recognizing that hepatitis C is a major health problem among veterans, especially Vietnam-era veterans, Congress has earmarked $1.5 billion in the just-passed budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs to treat veterans with hepatitis C.

That sounds like a lot of money until you look at the cost of treatment. 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! Thankfully, the VA gets a 50% discount from the drug maker lowering the cost to around $42,000 per patient. However it is still very expensive to treat all the veterans afflicted with the disease.

It is estimated that as many as 230,000 veterans suffer from hepatitis C, in fact one estimate says that one in 10 veterans are infected with hepatitis C, a rate 5 times greater than the general population. That means that it would cost over $9.6 billion to fully treat all infected veterans.

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that attacks the liver, in advanced cases it can lead to liver failure, liver cancer, and death. Last year, about 3,000 veterans died in VA care as a result of hepatitis C.The major routes of infection are:

  • blood transfusions
  • medical contact
  • tattoos
  • sexual contact
  • recreational drug use

One reason veterans, especially Vietnam-era veterans are infected at a much higher rate than non-veterans is that prior to the early 1990s there was no way to detect the virus on medical equipment, or blood transfusions. Injured veterans who received battlefield treatment, and those providing treatment on ships or helicopter crews providing transport were often exposed to the virus unknowingly.

VA had been seeking funding from Congress for years to treat infected veterans and this year they used some creative accounting practices to provide private care through the Veterans Choice Act for up to 35,000 veterans infected with hepatitis C. Some veterans groups had complained about the VA using money that was earmarked for other programs to treat severely infected hepatitis C patients, but the Veterans Choice Program had not been fully utilized due to other constraints, and the VA saw it as a way to effectively deal with the approximately $400 million budget shortfall in hepatitis C care. 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.

In a wry plot twist, 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, which the company charges taxpayers $42,000 for.

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