It’s been nearly a decade since safe and effective antiviral treatments for hepatitis C became available, but these lifesaving drugs still aren’t reaching most people with the liver-attacking infection.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that only about 1 in 3 people with health insurance get treated for hepatitis C within a year of their diagnosis. This rate is even lower among people with Medicaid insurance.
If left untreated, the viral infection — which affects more than 2 million Americans, many of whom are older adults — can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and death.
Experts point to a few barriers that are likely keeping individuals from accessing the medications that can cure more than 95 percent of people who have hepatitis C in a matter of months — and cost is a big one.
Although competition has brought the price down somewhat, initial costs for hepatitis C treatment hovered around $90,000. As a result, many insurance plans set up requirements that patients must meet to get treatment, such as displaying signs of liver damage before starting the medication or abstaining from drugs and alcohol, CDC health officials said in a news briefing on the report. Excessive paperwork can also keep patients from accessing treatment.
“This costs the nation thousands of preventable deaths,” said Jonathan Mermin, M.D., director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. Roughly 14,000 Americans die from hepatitis C each year.
Stigma may also play a role, since people who inject drugs are at higher risk for contracting hepatitis C. And sometimes people don’t seek treatment if they are in the throes of addiction, says Douglas Dieterich, M.D., director of the Institute for Liver Medicine and professor of medicine in the Division of Liver Diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. He makes it clear, however, that you don’t need to be sober to get treated.
Finally, people may not understand that you don’t need to see a specialist or drive to a large health care facility to get treated for hepatitis C. Your primary care doctor can prescribe the pills; you can also get treated at a federally qualified health center, Dieterich points out.