Representatives from the Balm In Gilead, Inc., including members of the Conference of National Black Churches and other faith and community leaders serving African American populations, are meeting this week with members of Congress to address what has become a silent epidemic in communities nationwide.

More than three million Americans are estimated to be living with hepatitis C and as many as three-quarters of them do not know they are carrying the disease. Hepatitis C—a virus that attacks the liver—is the leading cause of liver cancer and is responsible for more deaths each year than HIV.  


The Centers for Disease Control has warned that unless something is done, deaths due to the Hepatitis C virus may triple over the next two decades. The disease disproportionately affects certain communities, including minorities and veterans, with the prevalence rate among African Americans and Latinos almost double that of Caucasians.  

While the situation is dire, the fact is that many of the deaths caused by hepatitis C can be prevented. New breakthrough treatments exist and these treatments have been shown to be highly effective in curing the disease.  

But, despite the fact that there are effective medications available, a variety of roadblocks stand in the way when it comes to patients actually being able to receive these treatments. The communities that have the highest rate of hepatitis C—African Americans, Latinos, and veterans—often are the very communities that have the most difficulty receiving the care they need. 

Research out of Harvard University has found that 42 Medicaid programs impose barriers—in potential violation of federal law—when patients seek the new hepatitis C treatments that are available.  

Similarly, many private insurance plans have policies that require patients to first contract serious, even deadly liver complications before being covered for hepatitis C treatment. This means that people who have early stages of the virus must wait until they are suffering from serious, and often permanent, complications before they can receive medicine. 

The current situation—a deadly disease affecting people around the country, with a cure available but out of reach to many who need it most—needs to be corrected. 

So what should be done? 

Congress should pass the Viral Hepatitis Testing Act of 2015. The bill—supported by both Republicans and Democrats—would authorize $80 million over three years for education and testing programs for hepatitis C. These programs would help shine light on a disease many people are not familiar with and encourage individuals—in particular those who fall in high-risk groups—to seek testing and medical care, if necessary. 

Congress should also ensure that the FY 2016 budget levels for the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Centers for Disease Control that is already approved are appropriated. This money will help Americans who are at risk for the disease receive the testing and medication they need.

Finally, Congress should call on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Department of Health to mandate an end to discriminatory restrictions on hepatitis C treatment. The restrictions in place deny patients access to proven medicines, put lives at risk, and disproportionately harm minority communities. 

Withholding care both hurts patients and can strain our healthcare system as a whole. Patients who are denied medications may need to be hospitalized and even undergo dangerous surgeries, such as liver transplants. That’s why studies have shown that curing hepatitis C cost-effective, even in patients with just moderate disease progression. 

Our country is a leader in developing life-saving medical treatments. We must make sure that advances in care are available to those who need them the most.

Seele is CEO and founder of The Balm In Gilead, Inc., a not-for-profit organization bridging faith and public health interventions to address health disparities in the United States and Africa for over two decades.