By Julian Pecquet - 06/17/10 07:01 PM EDT
The legislation under consideration, introduced in October by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), has 52 bipartisan co-sponsors. The "Viral Hepatitis and Liver Cancer Control and Prevention Act" is currently in the Energy and Commerce Committee.
The bill would charge the secretary of Health and Human Services with developing and implementing a plan for the prevention, control and medical management of hepatitis B and C; it would also provide federal funding for state-based screening and early intervention programs.
"We can do a whole lot better than what we're doing," said Oversight panel chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.). "I think it's a disgrace to have a problem of this nature and to not commit resources."
The panel heard testimony from Honda and Reps. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). Cassidy is a hepatologist who co-sponsored the bill, and Johnson last year acknowledged he was undergoing treatment for hepatitis C.
Cassidy applauded former President Bill Clinton's children’s vaccination program and said the Honda bill would "similarly save lives." But debate quickly descended into budgetary politics.
Oversight ranking member Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said Republicans would not vote for any new directed spending unless it's part of the budget bill, which has stalled.
Meanwhile, Democrats bristled at Issa's description of the word "earmark" to describe the bill.
A coalition of more than 175 public and private organizations launched a print ad campaign on Tuesday to coincide with the hearing. The National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable ad is made to look like a movie poster and reads "Mission: Possible."
"If Congress gets on the case now," the ad says, "the leading cause of liver cancer won't stand a chance."
Patient advocates say the Honda bill will help boost funding for hepatitis prevention efforts, which currently only get 2 percent — $19.3 million — of the budget allocated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral
Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. Advocates hope the Honda bill will eventually allow them to get $150 million a year.