Kerry pushes $600 million bill to create national hepatitis strategy

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on Thursday introduced a bill directing the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a national strategy to prevent and control viral hepatitis.

The bill would authorize funding of almost $600 million over five years to combat the disease. Some 5.3 million Americans are infected with hepatitis B or C, which disproportionately affects blacks and Asian and kills 12,000 to 15,000 Americans every year.

"Viral hepatitis is a silent killer," Kerry said in introducing the legislation. "Most people don’t even know they have hepatitis until it causes liver damage or even cancer years after the initial infection. We can easily avoid these needless tragedies with prevention, surveillance programs, and by educating Americans about this deadly disease."

Kerry's bill — the "Viral Hepatitis and Liver Cancer Control and Prevention Act" — has the support of 102 community-based organizations that provide viral hepatitis counseling, screening and treatment.

"Senator Kerry’s legislation is urgently needed to modernize our nation’s public health response to chronic viral hepatitis," Lorren Sandt, chair of the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable, said in a statement. "Screening and early intervention are critical to achieving better outcomes for infected patients and must be a national priority. Otherwise, our system will incur — each and every year — thousands of avoidable deaths and billions of dollars in unnecessary costs."

Kerry's bill is sister legislation to the bill Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) introduced in the House in October. That bill has 60 bipartisan co-sponsors.

The House oversight panel held a hearing on the issue in June and urged prompt passage of Honda's bill. The hearing came on the heels of an Institute of Medicine report that highlighted deficiencies with the federal government's response to the epidemic.