Hepatitis C Can Be Cured: We Just Need the Political Will

October 22, 2015
VOCAL-NY members holding banner that says "Test + Treat Hep C Now"
Written by Jennifer Flynn, Vocal-NY Executive Director

New York can be a national a leader in protecting the health of baby boomers.  As when the city was faced with the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, New York can again become a leader for other states by declaring ourselves hepatitis C free.

More than 200,000 New Yorkers are believed to have hepatitis C, which is a leading cause of liver disease and now kills more people nationwide than HIV/AIDS.  Many were infected through blood transfusions—regular blood supply screening was not introduced until 1992. Others have come into contact with the virus through intravenous drug use.  As CDC Director Dr. Tom Friedman said earlier this year, when he recommended baby boomers get tested for hepatitis C, “You may not remember everything that happened in the ’60s and ’70s, but your liver does.”

Hepatitis C is now a curable disease. There are two highly effective drugs that are   easily taken and that have an extremely high cure rate—both are produced by the pharmaceutical giant, Gilead.

Unfortunately, the cost of both of these medications is astronomically high, which has led insurance providers to limit access to the drug until liver damage has already taken place.

In 2013, VOCAL-NY launched a campaign to tackle this problem. We brought together people living with hepatitis C and organizations providing services to those living with, and who are high risk for, hepatitis C. We used a variety of tactics: they produced policy papers, crashed the drug company’s shareholders meeting, and appeared before the NYS Drug Utilization Review Board, where we demanded price reduction and an end to restrictions for people seeking treatment.

Along the way, New York City passed the first hepatitis C testing bill in the country, making it easier for people to learn they have hepatitis C before they get sick. This bill has had a remarkable effect, bringing Hepatitis C testing up a whopping 60 percent from 2013 to 2014 after the bill’s implementation.

Support from the New York Foundation helped the campaign get noticed by both the NYC and NYS Department of Health. We were able to leverage this small investment into nearly half a million dollars towards organizing a statewide coalition that will hopefully result in our state making the commitment to becoming the first in the nation to end hepatitis C.

VOCAL-NY is sending the strong message that when a cure for a disease exists, we will never, ever let cost be a barrier for all of us who need it. VOCAL-NY and the New York Foundation are doing our part to make hepatitis C history.