Oct 10, 2017 · by Audrey Quinn and Aneri PattaniWhen doctors told Tina Harris that she was infected with hepatitis C, she didn’t know what to think. Other than the few commercials she’d seen on TV, Harris said she hadn’t heard much about the disease.
The 52-year-old works at a church in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. She said she never used intravenous needles or had a blood transfusion – common means of transmission for hepatitis C. “I don’t know where it came from,” she said.
And she may never have found that she was infected if it weren’t for a New York state law that makes hepatitis C screening a required part of primary care for baby boomers. That law led Harris to be tested a few years ago and prompted her to seek treatment.
The measure, which the state legislature passed in 2014, was the first of its kind in the U.S. It required health-care providers to test anybody born between 1945 and 1965 for hepatitis C. Now a new study conducted by the New York State Department of Health suggests it might be paying off.
The study found that 50 percent more patients were tested in the year following the law’s implementation. The data also showed that about 40 percent more of the patients diagnosed with hepatitis C – like Harris – received follow up care that year.
“I would have never asked to be tested,” Harris said.
That’s a pretty common mindset among baby boomers, said Kathleen Bernock, a family nurse practitioner and clinical director of the hepatitis C program at Bedford-Stuyvesant Family Health Center. They’re at a stage in their lives where they typically don’t engage in behaviors that would put them at risk, she said.
Harris, who Bernock has been treating since her diagnosis, is an apt example.
“She is a full-time working woman,” Bernock said. “She goes to church every Sunday. She has her family. She has absolutely no current risk factors for having hepatitis C.”
Bernock added: “I think it could very easily have been overlooked if there hadn’t been a mandate in place.”
Hepatitis C is a contagious disease that can lead to severe liver damage and sometimes death. About 3 million Americans – most of them baby boomers – have chronic hepatitis C, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
City data show that in New York the number is nearly 150,000 residents. But researchers say the total is likely higher primarily because as many as 75 percent of people who are infected don’t know it, according to the CDC.
The disease is typically spread by blood contact from sharing needles to inject drugs, for example, or from having undergone blood transfusions before 1992. That’s when sensitive tests for hepatitis C were introduced for blood screening. All of which means baby boomers are at an increased risk.
In fact, baby boomers are five times more likely than any other generation to have hepatitis C, the CDC says. It’s why it’s so important for them to be tested, Bernock said.
By the time Harris was screened a few years ago, the disease had already damaged her liver. She had to start a regular course of medication, have blood drawn every two weeks and attend counseling to understand the implications of the disease.
Her treatment was covered by insurance. Not everyone is so lucky. A standard 12-week course of hepatitis C drugs can cost up to $90,000.
In August, the federal Food and Drug Administration approved Mavyret, a new drug with a lower price tag and a shorter treatment period: about $26,000 for an 8-week course. That can still put the drug out of reach for patients.
New York state’s Medicaid program lifts the burden for some. In the third quarter of 2015, the state spent at least $107 million on hepatitis C drugs, accounting for roughly 10 percent of all Medicaid drug spending, POLITICO reported.
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