“I was really proud of that work,” said Wilder, who had been part of the task force assembled six months earlier by the governor to craft the blueprint that he would publicly tout and aggressively implement.
Based on that experience, she was optimistic about her appointment by Cuomo in the fall of 2018 to a task force charged with making recommendations toward eliminating hepatitis C, a viral infection that can cause serious liver damage and effects more than 200,000 New Yorkers.
But nearly 18 months have passed since the hepatitis C task force held its final meeting and their work hasn’t been released by the Cuomo administration. A key accountability measure is caught in limbo, task force members are discouraged from publicizing their recommendations and the virus has likely made a resurgence during the pandemic.
“I don’t know where (the hepatitis C recommendations) are at this point. I stopped asking because it’s too frustrating,” said Wilder, who was a director of an HIV and hepatitis C clinical education program. “I think that work is just as important as our work with ending the AIDS epidemic, and those lives are just as important.”
State health department spokesman Jonah Bruno maintains the task force’s plan will be released “soon,” but did not address the delay or the secrecy surrounding the task force.
New York has traditionally been at the forefront of national efforts to combat hepatitis C, with the highlight being a 2013 law that dramatically expanded testing for the virus among baby boomers. And while that testing law reflected the need at the time, the state’s focus hasn’t necessarily kept up with emerging trends, according to Mike Selick of the Harm Reduction Coalition, which tries to mitigate the negative effects of drug use.
“We found out in the last year or two that young people injecting drugs upstate is one of the biggest populations living with hepatitis C,” Selick said. “Guess where most of our programs are targeted? To middle age and older, Black and Latino men in (New York City).”
In the summer of 2018, after receiving a letter from a coalition of 62 health care providers, caregivers and activists about the need for a coordinated response to the “alarming rise” of the virus, Cuomo announced the creation of a hepatitis C task force.
The hope from the coalition was that a task force endorsed by the governor would have better luck in steering state policy. Many in the coalition were veterans of an earlier partnership with the state Department of Health that produced over 30 hepatitis C recommendations in 2017 that hadn’t been implemented.
The focus on hepatitis C was bolstered by a two-year, $5 million annual commitment in state funds - a 400 percent year-to-year increase - with the bulk of the money going upstate.
“It was very exciting at the time,” remembers Ronni Marks, one of the few task force members who had also lived with the virus.
After an initial Albany meeting in November 2018, the task force members did the bulk of their work in groups on the phone until convening back in Albany for their last meeting in June 2019, when they signed off on a final plan.
“We crossed the t’s, we dotted the i’s, and made sure everybody was on board,” Marks said.
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