Rick Jaenisch went through treatment six times before his hepatitis C was cured in 2017. Each time his doctors recommended a different combination of drugs, his insurer denied the initial request before eventually approving it. This sometimes delayed his care for months, even after he developed end-stage liver disease and was awaiting a liver transplant.
“At that point, treatment should be very easy to access,” said Jaenisch, now 37 and the director of outreach and education at Open Biopharma Research and Training Institute, a nonprofit group in Carlsbad, California. “I’m the person that treatment should be ideal for.”
But it was never easy. Jaenisch was diagnosed in 1999 at age 12, after his dad took him to a San Diego hospital because Jaenisch showed him that his urine was brown, a sign there was blood in it. Doctors determined that he likely got the disease at birth from his mom, a former dental surgical assistant who learned she had the virus only after her son’s diagnosis.
People infected with the viral disease, which is typically passed through blood contact, are often outwardly fine for years. An estimated 40% of the more than 2 million people in the U.S. who are infected don’t even know they have it, while the virus may quietly be damaging their liver, causing scarring, liver failure, or liver cancer.
With several highly effective, lower-cost treatments now on the market, one might expect that nearly everyone who knows they have hepatitis C would get cured. But a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in June found that is far from the case. A proposal by the Biden administration to eliminate the disease in five years aims to change that.
Overall, the agency’s analysis found, during the decade after the introduction of the new antiviral treatments, only about a third of the people with an initial hepatitis C diagnosis cleared the virus, either through treatment or the virus resolving on its own. Most infected people had health insurance of some kind, whether Medicare, Medicaid, or commercial coverage. But even among commercially insured patients, who were most likely to receive treatment, only half of those age 60 or older had viral clearance by the end of the study period in 2022.
“Unlike HIV, where you have it for the rest of your life, with hepatitis C it’s a very short time frame, just eight to 12 weeks, and you’re cured,” said Carl Schmid, executive director of the HIV+Hepatitis Policy Institute. “So why aren’t we doing a better job?”
Experts point to several roadblocks that infected people encounter. When the new treatments were introduced, cost was a huge factor. Private plans and state Medicaid programs limited spending on the pricey drugs by making them tougher to get, imposing prior authorization requirements, restricting access to people whose livers were already damaged, or requiring patients to abstain from drug use to qualify, among other restrictions.
By the time Jaenisch’s case was cured at age 31, the landscape of hepatitis C treatment had changed dramatically. A groundbreaking, once-a-day pill was introduced in 2013, replacing a grueling regimen of weekly interferon injections that had uncertain success rates and punishing side effects. The first of these “direct-acting antivirals” treated the disease in eight to 12 weeks, with few side effects and cure rates exceeding 95%. As more drugs were approved, the initial eye-popping $84,000 price tag for a course of treatment has gradually dropped to about $20,000.
As drug prices have declined, and under pressure from advocates and public health experts, many states have eliminated some of those barriers that have made it difficult to get approved for treatment.
©2023 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.