More Funding Allows VA to Treat All Veterans Who Have Hepatitis C

Catherine Kolonko

Hepatitis C treatment will now be made available to all US military veterans who are infected with the virus as a result of recent expanded federal funding.

Hepatitis C treatment will now be made available to all US military veterans who are infected with the virus as a result of recent expanded federal funding, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs announcement.

It is expected that many more veterans “will be started on hepatitis C treatment every week this fiscal year,” as a result of recent increased congressional funding, a VA release states.

The announcement that the VA can now fund care for all veterans with hepatitis arrives after a year of controversy surrounding high prices for hepatitis C drugs and criticism of the department over lag time of doctor appointments for veterans in need of medical care. The VA department estimates that it will spend $1 billion in fiscal year 2016 just on hepatitis C drugs.

“We’re honored to be able to expand treatment for Veterans who are afflicted with hepatitis C,” VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin said in a release. “To manage limited resources previously, we established treatment priority for the sickest patients.”

“Additionally, if Veterans are currently waiting on an appointment for community care through the Choice Program, they can now turn to their local VA facility for this treatment or can elect to continue to receive treatment through the Choice Program,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that roughly 3 million people are infected with hepatitis C, a bloodborne virus that can seriously damage the liver over time. Many are veterans of the US military.

In the past few years, great strides have been made in the treatment of hepatitis C since the introduction of new antiviral drugs that work faster and have higher cure rates. However, the high cost of the new drugs has fueled controversy and prompted criticism by a US Senate panel that accused Gilead Sciences of price gouging for its hepatitis C drugs that can cost upwards of $84,000 to treat one patient.

To date, more than 76,000 veterans infected with hepatitis C have been screened and treated through VA programs, according the VA release. Some 60,000 have been cured of the virus and since 2014 more than 42,000 patients were treated with “new highly effective antivirals,” the release states.

The VA said it allocated $696 million in fiscal year 2015 to pay for new hepatitis C drugs, which was 17% of the department’s pharmacy budget. For this year’s fiscal budget, the department expects to spend about $1 billion for hepatitis C drugs, the release states.

The pharmaceutical company Merck, which just recently gained regulatory approval for its hepatitis C drug called Zepatier, said in a statement that it applauds the VA efforts. Company officials said they considered past price constraints that had prevented many from getting treatment when they priced Zepatier at $54,000 for a 12-week course.

“The VA is now leading the way for the US in showing what is possible in the fight against chronic hepatitis C,” Merck’s chairman and CEO Kenneth C. Frazier said in the release.

The VA release states that veterans can gain access to additional information on hepatitis C by logging onto this website.