“This is terrific news,” said US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie, noting that the VA is the largest single provider of hepatitis C virus (HCV) care in the US. “Diagnosing, treating, and curing hepatitis C virus infection among veterans has been a significant priority for VA.” According to the Review of Hepatitis C Virus Care within the Veterans Health Administration, published last month by the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG), the VA cares for more than 180,000 confirmed patients who are disproportionately affected by HCV infection, at rates about 3 times that of the national average.
As of March, nearly 116,000 veterans had started all-oral HCV medications. Almost 100,000 have completed treatment and are now cured. As an article in Forbes magazine pointed out, that is a story very different from the one reported just a few years earlier, when HCV treatment was out of reach for the tens of thousands of service members seriously ill with HCV, most of whom contracted it during blood transfusions in the Vietnam War.
The good news is due largely to the use of highly effective direct-acting antivirals (DAAs), which have revolutionized HCV treatment. Before 2014, HCV treatment required weekly interferon injections for up to a year, with low cure rates (35%-55%) and significant physical and psychiatric adverse effects (AEs), leading to frequent early discontinuation. Of the approximately 180,000 veterans in VA care at that time who had been diagnosed with chronic HCV infection, only 12,000 had been treated and cured. More than 30,000 had advanced liver disease.
In 2014, the VA launched an “aggressive program” to identify all undiagnosed veterans with HCV, link them to care, and offer them treatment with the new medications: sofosbuvir (Sovaldi) and simeprevir (Olysio). They have few AEs and can be administered once daily for as few as 8 weeks.
However, those drugs were incredibly expensive, prohibitively so for many people. Sovaldi cost $1,000 a pill. But the VA, allowed by law to negotiate prices, brought down the price. The VA estimated that the drugs would cost roughly $750 million and provide about 60,000 treatments over 2017 and 2018, at about $25,300 per service member .
The VA then began treating close to 2,000 veterans with HCV every week—nearly 1 treatment started every minute of every workday. As a result, by the next year the overall death rate had dropped dramatically. Veterans cured of HCV were also 84% less likely to develop liver cancer.