Congress made headlines last month by approving a funding measure to avert the looming government shutdown. But the measure doesn’t just keep federal agencies funded until next fall. Buried within the 2000-plus page bill is a truly historic development for veterans battling the nation’s deadliest blood-borne disease.
Veterans, especially those of my era who served in and around Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, experience hepatitis C infection rates that are twice as high as our civilian counterparts. Yet previously, too many people who tested positive for hepatitis C preferred to forego treatment and risk cirrhosis, hepatic cancer, liver damage, and/or organ failure, rather than undergo the harsh and largely ineffective regimen of chemotherapy required to attempt to rid their bodies of the virus.
Recognizing this historic opportunity to treat the more than 180,000 veterans infected with the virus, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) rushed to begin providing these new treatments to its patients.
However, given that the VA's medical services budget is appropriated by Congress a year in advance, the extra funding required to handle the influx of new hepatitis C patients in 2015 could not have been anticipated years prior. Acting laudably in response, Congress quickly provided the VA with emergency resources, which the agency used to begin an aggressive awareness campaign among veterans of their risk for the disease, and making cures available to those in greatest need.
The appropriations cycle that just concluded with the approved omnibus bill in mid-December was the first time that the VA could attempt to project a budget for hepatitis C medications for veterans – and the Department was conservative in requesting $1.3 billion for the next two fiscal years. Thankfully, however, the VA's authorizers and appropriators on Capitol Hill had the fortitude to recognize the need for a much more substantial investment in hepatitis C treatments for veterans and the enormous long-term savings to the taxpayer – and to veterans' health – from laying out that investment up front.
The final version of the omnibus bill included $3 billion in funding for treating veterans with hepatitis C over the next two years, and for that we applaud and thank members of the Veterans Affairs and Appropriations Committees. This is a critical first step towards addressing the hepatitis C epidemic among veterans, and we are hopeful this level of commitment can continue until we can eradicate this deadly virus.
It's not often that we achieve biomedical breakthroughs with which to fight back against major public health threats. We are grateful that Congress has come together across party lines to capitalize on this opportunity to adequately address the devastating impact of hepatitis C on our veterans.
Berger is executive director of the Veterans Health Council at Vietnam Veterans of America.