Population studies show high prevalence of chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection among veterans, especially Vietnam War era veterans. 1,2 The development of safe and efficacious direct-acting antiviral (DAA) medications to treat HCV infection made the majority of those infected eligible for treatment. However, the large number of veterans needing DAA treatment stressed the resources of the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system. This occurred while Congress was focused on reducing wait times for veterans receiving care at the VA.
Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act on August 7, 2014, leading to the creation of the Veterans Choice Program. Legislators felt there were inappropriate delays in care at the VA, and the Choice program was meant to address this problem and provide an “apples-to-apples comparison [of the VA] with non-VA hospitals.” 3
Congress acknowledged the importance of curing HCV in the veteran population and allocated $1.5 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2016 for DAAs. The VA Central Office (VACO) carefully monitored these resources. The first policy memorandum from VACO for HCV care, issued on May 21, 2015, recommended that the sickest patients who will benefit from the treatment “receive priority over those who are less ill.” 4,5 Those who met criteria for advanced liver disease were prioritized for treatment at the VA, while those who did not meet criteria were given the option of receiving treatment through Choice, or waiting for a change in policy.6 Over time, revisions to the guidelines relaxed the criteria for VA treatment eligibility, and on February 24, 2016, all restrictions on HCV treatment at the VA were lifted. 7,8
The aim of this study was to provide a comparison of VA and non-VA care, specifically to determine whether care provided through Choice was timelier and more cost effective than care provided by the VA, and whether there was a quality difference. The high prevalence among veterans, wellestablished standards of care, and finite treatment course with clear indicators of success and failure makes HCV treatment an ideal disease with which to make this comparison.
We retrospectively analyzed the VA electronic health records of all veterans seen in the VA Loma Linda Healthcare System (VALLHCS) Hepatology clinic for chronic HCV infection during FY 2016 who were referred to Choice for HCV treatment. One hundred veterans met these criteria, encompassing the Choice population; 71 were seen at least once by a non-VA (Choice) health care provider (HCP) and 61 completed a treatment regimen through Choice. Treatment completion was defined as cessation of medication after the planned duration of therapy, or early termination of medication without resumption by that HCP. The Choice population was matched to an equal number of veterans who received HCV treatment from VALLHCS HCPs.
Data collected included age, gender, HCV genotype, determinants of liver fibrosis, and treatment success (defined as sustained virologic response at 12 weeks after the last dose of medication [SVR12]). Determinants of liver fibrosis included documented cirrhosis or complications of cirrhosis, Fibrosis-4 score (Fib-4), and platelet count.