Funding Bill Passed to Treat US Armed Forces Veterans With Hepatitis C

Bill authorizes the VA to spend as much as $500 million for hepatitis C treatments.

Bill authorizes the VA to spend as much as $500 million for hepatitis C treatments.

A recent highway funding bill could help thousands of veterans of the US Armed Forces in their battle against hepatitis C virus (HCV).

The bill, passed into law on July 31, 2015 by President Barack Obama, “grants the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) temporary authority to use certain transfers from the Veterans Choice Fund to pay for health care for eligible veterans at non-VA facilities, including pharmaceuticals for the treatment of HCV,” the bill stated.

The funding will be in effect through the end of fiscal year 2015. The bill authorizes the VA to spend as much as $500 million for hepatitis C treatments using the Veterans Choice Fund.

The authority to spend upwards of $400 million for the treatment of HCV comes as a great relief to veterans who previously could not afford the therapies. While recently approved antiviral drugs provide cure rates up greater than 90 percent, the price tags that come with those drugs are oftentimes unaffordable, especially for veterans.

Drug-makers assert that funding shortages at the VA have affected overall sales of the drugs with a projected $2.5 billion shortfall because demand for VA care has increased. With HCV drugs like Sovaldi and Harvoni costing upwards of $84,000 for a treatment course, it is easy to ascertain why the demand for VA funding of treatment for hepatitis C has increased.

“We’ve already seen VA purchases drop off towards the end of quarter two,” said Paul Carter, Gilead’s executive vice president of commercial operations in a statement to Bloomberg Business. Gilead Sciences Inc. produces the HCV treatment drugs Sovaldi and Harvoni, both of which have extremely favorable results in regards to HCV treatment and cure rates.

In addition to the utilization of funds to cover HCV drugs Sovaldi and Harvoni, the bill allows for the VA to cover AbbVie’s Viekira Pak for eligible veterans. It is estimated that approximately 1 in 10 U.S. veterans are living with HCV today according to Hep, an online magazine dedicated to covering hepatitis C. In 2014, 16,000 veterans got treated for HCV through the VA medical centers. Of those 16,000, only eight were approved for treatment under the VA’s Choice Fund.

Some HCV advocacy groups are against the VA’s outsourcing of its HCV care, saying that the move has the potential to limit the number of veterans determined eligible for treatment, according to Hep. With less than 1 percent of veterans approved for treatment in 2014, this issue generated significant controversy between the VA and its critics.

“While we are all in support of Hepatitis C veterans getting the cure, I think the money should come from a different source than the funds set aside for the Veterans Choice Program,” Benjamin Krause, wrote on his DisabledVeterans.org community site. Krause authored the Voc Rehab Survival Guide for Veterans.

While veterans celebrate this minor victory in the funding for HCV treatment, the VA gears up for next year’s funding request, which will include an additional 11,394 veterans infected with the disease in 2016, with a cost of approximately $690 million, according to the VA.