Letter to the Editor

Published Monday, June 27, 2016

Dear Editor, 

Here at Liver Health Connection, we educate patients, providers, and the general public about diseases affecting the liver and provide advocacy, resources, and support. Two diseases of particular concern to us are hepatitis C, a life-threatening chronic disease that affects an estimated 3.2 million Americans, including about 60,000 people in Colorado, and liver cancer, the 6th leading cause of cancer in the US. 

The Baby Boomer generation, those born between 1945 and 1965, are most likely to be diagnosed with hepatitis C. It is particularly important for people in this age group to get tested for this disease because their health is being compromised without their knowledge - hence, the "silent epidemic" name. Hepatitis C can often be asymptomatic, and many patients do not realize that they carry the virus until it has done significant damage to the liver. 

Until recently, the treatment for hepatitis C was an 11-month round of medication that caused patients to feel sick constantly and even then, this treatment had a low success rate. However, thanks to years of pharmaceutical research, new treatments have few side effects and can cure over 90 percent of patients in a matter of weeks. 

However, some insurance companies and Colorado Medicaid are restricting access to these medicines. They argue that hepatitis C is a "chronic disease," so all patients don't need to be treated immediately. They are limiting insurance coverage to only the sickest patients, while the rest of the hepatitis C community waits around until they are sick enough to be treated.

If left untreated, the disease can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer, which are much more difficult and expensive to treat than the virus itself. Every year, approximately 19,000 Americans die from liver cancer or chronic liver disease associated with viral hepatitis. Liver cancer is on the rise. From 2008 to 2012, liver cancer incidence increased an average of 2.3 percent per year, and the death rate from liver cancer increased. 

These new hepatitis C treatments give patients hope for a healthy life and the chance to avoid much more expensive, painful, and difficult procedures in the future and also reduce the likelihood of liver cancer. We must ensure that patients have access to these treatments and continue to maintain an innovation-friendly marketplace, securing cures for tomorrow. 

Disease progression is not linear, that is, one person may get sicker while another does not. "Wait and see" is not an appropriate response when it's not clear who will get worse during the waiting period. Doctors -- not the insurance industry - should be making the decisions for a patient's health care. 

Nancy Steinfurth