The consequences of the hepatitis C virus can be devastating if people are unable to access treatment. Left untreated, they can experience irreversible liver damage, cirrhosis, liver cancer and even death. Thankfully, investments in pharmaceutical research have led to new oral medications that allows individuals to be cured in as little as eight weeks, with few to no side effects. These medications have become more affordable as the price continues to drop due to competition.
Here in Washington, we know all too well the impact of hepatitis C. From 2010 to 2016, the number of reports of new infections (acute cases) rose by more than 280% statewide, with most occurring among young persons who inject drugs. Nationwide, cases of hepatitis rose by 350% during that same time period. These are upsetting statistics, but we know how to change this trend.
The World Health Organization and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine have released reports showing that eliminating viral hepatitis as a public-health threat is possible both globally and nationally, and not only saves lives, but also saves money in the long run. However, elimination requires concerted efforts by states and communities, and an investment in resources. The U.S. has recently demonstrated this with the federal effort of “Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America,” which hopes to reduce new HIV infections by 90% in 10 years. We need a similar initiative to eliminate hepatitis C.
In some state Medicaid programs, access to the medications that cure hepatitis C has been restricted to only those individuals who have progressed to more advanced liver disease. Not only is this against Medicaid policy, it causes undue harm. Treatment restrictions are a significant barrier to eliminating the virus nationally.
Washington state has heeded the call to eliminate hepatitis and is taking action. Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee called on the state to eliminate hepatitis C by 2030, following the same goal the World Health Organization set in 2016. A plan titled “Hep C Free Washington” seeks to eliminate hepatitis C in Washington state by 2030 and will be released in the next few weeks. This July, the state also took an enormous step in these efforts when it finalized a new contract with drug manufacturer AbbVie to bring resources to the state to eliminate the virus. Under the agreement, the state has a guaranteed net unit price up to a certain treatment threshold after which it pays a nominal price for an unlimited supply of hepatitis C treatments. A similar agreement was recently reached between Louisiana and a subsidiary of the drug manufacturer Gilead.
Washington is also increasing hepatitis C awareness and testing for individuals at a high risk for the virus and linking those in need to treatment. By increasing our efforts to meet those individuals where they receive services in their communities, we can break down existing barriers to testing, effective treatment and the necessary follow-up needed to cure those living with this disease. These efforts can significantly help cure the approximately 60,000 Washingtonians living with chronic hepatitis C. The more individuals we are able to test and treat for this disease, the more we prevent new cases from happening.
Eliminating hepatitis C requires us to enact innovative and creative solutions. The model and the plan developed in Washington state is a good first step toward that goal and an example for other states given nearly 2.4 million Americans are living with hepatitis. We also call on our elected officials in Washington, D.C., to ensure the nation has the resources and leadership needed to eliminate the virus once and for all.
Every time we help a fellow Washingtonian get cured, we prove that eliminating hepatitis C is possible. It’s all hands on deck to help more of our neighbors get tested and treated. We hope other states follow suit.