One senator's push to fund hepatitis C treatment for veterans
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Many veterans who fought to protect and defend our country are still fighting to get the support they need from the federal government. Fortunately, help may be on the way for veterans living with hepatitis C, one of the greatest threats facing former servicemen and women.

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Recently, the Senate Appropriations Committee followed the lead of Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkEx-GOP Sen. Kirk registers to lobby The global reality behind 'local' problems Dems vow swift action on gun reform next year MORE (R-Ill.) and approved a budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that included an additional $200 million to fund critical hepatitis C treatments for a total of more than $1.5 billion for hepatitis C over the next two years. The measure is now on its way to the full Senate for a final vote. This means that Kirk's pathway to securing these needed treatments for the veterans community may come in contact with federal budget-cap debates and be blocked as the next federal fiscal year approaches. It will make a big difference if veterans of all generations contact their members of Congress to insist that veterans' healthcare priorities must be left untouched during spending debates. Veterans have sacrificed enough — especially those living with hepatitis C — than to have to stand by while Congress fights about the numbers.

While hepatitis C has reached epidemic levels nationwide, the veterans community has a hepatitis C infection rate that is nearly double the national average. For veterans, this deadly, blood-borne disease is a leading cause of liver failure, catastrophic liver damage and liver cancer. It impacts veterans disproportionately due to a variety of factors, including battlefield blood exposure, emergency transfusions and mandatory vaccinations in the era before hepatitis C testing became common.

Today, there are at least 174,000 veterans who are infected with hepatitis C, and up to 50,000 more may be unknowingly carrying the potentially fatal virus. This population is in desperate need of screening and treatment, but until recently, the only medications available to treat hepatitis C involved harsh side effects and were effective just half of the time.

New treatments are now offering the greatest hope for a cure. They carry minimal side effects and cure rates of well over 95 percent. Veterans who are able to access these new, lifesaving treatments will not only live longer and healthier lives as a result of surviving this disease, but the treatments could also save the VA and taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of each veteran's life by avoiding long-term disease management costs, which often include expensive liver transplants and continual hospitalizations.

Fully funding hepatitis C treatment for veterans who were infected with this disease during the course of their service is not only the right thing to do; it is also a smart move from a fiscal and budgetary standpoint.

In today's budget environment, it's hard to get adequate funding for anything, even veterans' care. But fortunately, Kirk (a veteran himself) recognized that hepatitis C treatment is a critical need for the veterans community.

By allocating adequate funds to ensure safe and effective treatment for veterans living with hepatitis C, Sen. Kirk and the Senate Appropriations Committee (in which Kirk chairs the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies subcommittee) have demonstrated exceptional leadership. If the measure is passed by the full Senate, it will undoubtedly help save the lives of many veterans.

The reference to Sen. Kirk's role in the Senate Appropriations Committee has been corrected.

Neiweem is an Iraq War veteran and vice president of SRB Strategic, a Washington-based government affairs firm.