The CDC reported that deaths from Hepatitis C, the only strain of the virus that is not vaccine-preventable, have hit a record high in recent years. Hep C now kills more Americans than any other infectious disease, including HIV/AIDS.
Hep C is a silent killer -- most people don't know they are suffering from the disease until the virus has done significant damage to the liver, causing physical symptoms. Internally, this disease can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer, and other serious health consequences. The virus is the single leading cause of liver transplants, which can cost upwards of $500,000 along with expensive hospital care. Unfortunately, many patients die waiting on a donor match.
Even though there is not a vaccine available to prevent the Hepatitis C virus, drug manufacturers developed new treatments that reverse liver damage and completely cure Hep. C. This year the FDA approved a new "umbrella" pill to treat all major strains of the Hep C virus in patients with or without liver damage. Furthermore, company officials have said that it will cost less than previously available treatments. Although these new, effective treatments are available, a new study from the Center for Improving Value in Health Care, a nonprofit organization based in Denver, shows that the 89 percent of Coloradans with Hepatitis C are not receiving treatment through their insurance plans. One reason the number of patients receiving treatment is low is because health insurance companies create barriers to delay or deny coverage of the pricey, yet highly effective, medication.
Fortunately, patients and advocates have begun winning legal and political battles all over the country to improve access to these life-saving treatments. Federal agencies are promising to treat anyone in their health system with Hepatitis C. Perhaps most importantly, commercial insurance companies are getting on board. Anthem and UnitedHealthcare recently enacted new policies to authorize treatment for Hep C patients nationwide regardless of the stage of their disease. This is an uphill battle for the hepatitis community, but these efforts are beginning to pay off in tremendous ways. Let's take up the fight in Colorado to increase access to these new treatments for the tens of thousands of people suffering from Hepatitis C in our own communities.