Let’s get connected!

Often have I searched the internet wondering, where can I find helpful Hep C resources now that HCV Advocate is gone? Well there’s HepMag, Help4Hep (if you need help with treatment give ’em a call!), IhelpC, and HepatitisC.net, but they’re really good tools for information or story sharing, or delicious liver friendly eats(IHelpC). To help provide a space where we can connect with others who have experienced Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) or those who seek treatment, advice, guidance, or want to do more in the community!

This is the HCVME Community Discord It will prompt you to create a discord account. Due to the public nature of the discord, I have required a registered Discord account. Additionally I’ve set up a channel which features the latest from twitter regarding Viral Hep and Liver disease. featuring advocates like myself, but also liver organizations and medical experts. I’ll be on there posting HCV resource information and what not periodically. and come June, I’ll be on the discord regularly for chats! Please join us! make sure to agree to the rules and pick a role with fits you!

In May we’ll be launching the HepChat Hour on Monday evenings Pacific time 5:00pm-6:00pm on the HCVME Community Discord!

The Federal Government needs to step up to help eliminate Viral Hepatitis.

As a patient advocate, I often find myself taking a yearly trip (or a few) in the spring to speak with lawmakers and their offices. I speak to a number of injustices. I say this because they’re a strange combination of factors from willful defiance of the law to intentional underfunding likely due to in part to stigma and in part because it wasn’t “actionable” until 2013. Actionable, in this case, refers to investing in something that can improve or have a result which is desired. In truth, the only treatment prior to 2013 was still a crapshoot with a 70% cure rate (this rate does not include dropouts). Prior to 2013, there was little reason for an elected official to care about Hepatitis C (HCV), as little could be done. But in 2013, when a new treatment could help the millions suffering from Hepatitis C, instead, states restricted access to the treatments because they were expensive. (In truth if every American with HCV were treated for HCV with those prices, the numbers would run in the trillions, as it was about 88k per treatment and HCV affects between 3-6 million Americans. But due to the structure of healthcare here and the fact that more than 50% of people with HCV in the U.S. are unaware of their status, that could never have actually happened.) But when the prices fell, some states maintained the restrictions, some even expanded them. In 2015, CMS(Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) stepped in and issued a memo ensuring that all state Medicaid offices should not have restrictions for HCV meds. Despite both the significant decline in cost of the medications and the mandate of the 2015 CMS reiteration, 11 states continue to use liver damage restrictions, 34 states along with D.C. and P.R. continue to use sobriety restrictions, and 27 states along with D.C. and P.R. continue to use prescriber restrictions on access to Hepatitis C medications. In Texas, a Hepatitis C patient must be permanently injured with cirrhosis before they can access treatment. These restrictions are illegal, yet they persist. If you want to see a great breakdown of just how bad this is.

The State of Hep C with Medicaid Access (courtesy of StateOfHepC.org)

 Something as simple as an additional memo from the White House to CMS, giving them the ability to enforce the coverage and encourage Managed Care Organizations (Insurance organizations but for Medicare/Medicaid) to remove the restrictions might help ensure access to Hep C medications in states like Texas. An uncharacteristic hyper-regulated health access policy stance possibly due to strategic ignorance under the belief that it is more thrifty to deny live-saving medications to their residents. If you live in Texas, Montana, South Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, Alabama, or West Virginia, have Hep C and are in need of assistance, please check out Help4Hep, give ’em a call they’re a great group with helpful resources. Otherwise, maybe find your representative and tell them how absurd this is?

 The other matter also involves a certain ignorance; however, this one does not have the willful defiance fueling needless death. Hepatitis C has been chronically underfunded for decades. It currently is funded at 39 million at the federal level. That’s about 12 cents per person for the entire United States. For a condition which affects between 3-6 million Americans, and an additional 1.2-2.2 million with Hepatitis B, it is painfully surprising how little funding has gone into helping patients with viral hepatitis. I recently learned in preparation for a meeting with a house rep, that we lack significant analysis of viral hepatitis as federally, there is only one part-time epidemiologist for all of California’s nearly 40 million residents regarding viral hepatitis.

Virtual Hill Days have temporarily replace typical Hill visits

Right now, NVHRHep B Foundation, Hep B UnitedNASTAD, and others are hoping to expand the budget for viral hepatitis. The CDC has estimated that it would require an annual commitment of at least 316 million dollars to put the United States on the path towards viral Hepatitis Elimination. The current suggestion is to increase the budget to 134 million, less than half of what the CDC estimated is necessary. While personally, it’s disappointing to imagine a world where people disagree with public health priorities, we have positioned ourselves for modest but strategic gains in funding in this decreased ask. Because at 134 million, that’s still less than 50 cents per person in the United States.

This funding would expand one of the most critical elements of Viral hepatitis elimination, screening. In 2020, the CDC finally expanded screening recommendations to all adults and rescreening people who use injection drugs and during each pregnancy. While the latter has been met with some resistance from OBGYN groups, the other recommendations are slowly being implemented across insurance networks. (this is why OBGYN groups are misguided in their approach) This new recommendation is meaningless without expanded testing, especially in communities disproportionately affected by Viral Hepatitis. That testing is naturally limited by the current meager national funding. State and local efforts have a hard time gathering support without grassroots groups due to the silent stigma of Viral Hepatitis. Enhancing funding for screening in Federally Qualified Medical Centers and other community clinics would expand the reach of Hep C diagnosis into the heart of the #MissingMillions and start to help people where they are. But screening is only the door; it’s important that folks and doctors are ready to help guide and link patients with hepatitis c to treatment and ultimately cure/elimination.

2016 I joined with CalHep to help expand linkage-to-care.

In 2016, CalHep, formerly a program for Project Inform, now a part of the San Francisco Aids Foundation, led an effort to have several targeted linkage to care programs for Hep C in California. In total, the program was successfully funded for three years, with two million going into primarily three linkage-to-care or physician-education programs. It was very successful, but ultimately it would not be extended in 2018 due in part to Gov. Brown’s stance on long-term funding. This program’s total cost was roughly 6 million dollars. This is a familiar figure to me, as my bill to insurance total sits at a bit over 6 million dollars for all of my care as a Hep C patient since diagnosis. Efforts like CalHep are scattered throughout the country and have been empowered by local campaigns like End Hep C S.F. and Hep Free NYC. These grassroots groups are the backbone of Viral Hepatitis elimination in the U.S., and are in place ready to be empowered by increased funding. Groups like Hep Free Hawaii, like End Hep C San Diego, work as private-public partnerships with stakeholder groups. Most elimination campaigns are paired with or work with local Harm Reduction groups. This is a natural fit, as there is no way to eliminate hep c without addressing its most common transmission route, intravenous drug use. Harm Reduction groups add to the grassroots power of Hep C elimination. As folks at End Hep S.F. have seen, when people are cured of HCV, they accomplish secondary goals and may have an easier time controlling their substance use; it is an incredible state change being free of viral hepatitis, an otherwise death sentence. Grassroots organizations aren’t just here in the United States, NoHep is worldwide; as a program from the World Health Organization and World Hepatitis Alliance, it serves to connect and share data with micro-elimination movements around the world. This is our time to come together and end viral hepatitis. We have the tools: Vaccines for Hep A and B, and Curative treatments for Hep C; we have the people willing to do the work, now we need support.) 

 You can help. This year, Congress is poised to pass healthcare legislation that can improve the lives of millions of Americans. Allocating $134 million for the CDC Division of Viral Hepatitis and $120 million for the CDC Infectious Diseases Consequences of the Opioid Epidemic Program in Fiscal Year 2022 appropriations budget would bring us one ACTIONABLE step closer to Hep C elimination. In 2016 the USA joined in the WHO NoHep Pledge for global elimination of Viral Hepatitis by 2030, but it’s fallen short so far and taken years to take simple steps like universal screening for Hep C, while Hep B still needs universal screening recommendations from the CDC. This funding step would be the first real investment made by the United States’ federal government towards Viral Hepatitis elimination in the U.S. Let’s end Viral Hepatitis.


Unconvinced? Check out what Frank Hood has to say, he’s the Manager of Hepatitis Advocacy for The AIDS Institute and an all around great guy.

Get Tested, Get Treated, Get Cured.

PS it wouldn’t hurt if we fully got rid of the federal ban on funding Syringe Service Providers, it would provide a helpful destigmatizing avenue for people seeking treatment.

Hep C On a Plane, Expect Delays

We had just wrapped up a three day conference for Help4Hep, and I was wearing a shirt, a shirt I originally wore for a press conference against the BRCA.(The awful replacement for the ACA on the senate floor last year.) A  form fitting black cotton T-shirt that reads: “Hello, My preexisting condition is Hepatitis C.” The shirt’s purpose was to bring to people’s attention two things:  One that Preexisting conditions aren’t really visible, but they are common, and Two, That Hepatitis C is among them, and I have it. Even while being cured of Hep C, in the eyes of the medical world and insurance I will forever be a Hepatitis C patient.

Maybe it was because I was standing alone before we boarded, maybe it’s because I was visible, sitting in the front, but regardless why the next series of events happened, it’s unfortunate that they did.

IMG_20180612_112421.jpg
I wear a mask because I’m immunocompromised due to Liver Transplant

I was seated in the front row, and I was talking with the lady seated next to me about hepatitis C. My shirt was a conversation starter, earlier I’d explained the prevalence and the cure to a few others who’d asked. She was explaining to me that her mother had it and we spoke about the cure, to which she seemed surprised, but often people are unaware of it, so I went into more detail. I explained that there’s a lot of ignorance around the virus, and the cure, largely due to stigma about even talking about.

“Excuse me sir, I’m going to need to talk to you.” The flight attendant interrupted. He and another attendant pulled me off the plane and onto the boarding ramp. he began ” A passenger expressed concern about your shirt, could you explain?” Without thinking I responded I’m a Hepatitis C advocate, I just came from a conference. Noting their faces unchanging waiting for more information I continued. There’s a lot of ignorance about the disease, and a large part of that is due to stigma, so I’m not surprised someone is concerned. They asked if it was an issue.

And I responded, unsure if they meant an issue for me or for them, as the situation implied they took issue. “It’s a blood borne pathogen, it’s blood to blood only,” I continued, still waiting for a response I explained that I was cured last year, but regardless this shirt is my status, and it’s not an issue. I’d had enough of their concerned faces, and turned around and went back to my seat.

I was far too aware of the level of control airlines have over passengers, and now being a transplant patient I only had so much medication with me, so being stuck there was a concern.

Full Story On HepMag

The collapsing tunnel of healthcare premiums

It seems insane that something so necessary could increase in price so much over a short period of time, but Healthcare premiums have doubled in most states since 2013.

What’s worse is that for some states; Alabama, Alaska, and Oklahoma, it nearly tripled. The ACA’s three tiered structure was created to eat some of those cost increases and ensure that insurers had access to a larger market. The individual mandate helps keep prices from ballooning faster. And the premium credit gave those with low income, access to the market. The ACA was installed to slow the growth of premiums, and yet it outpaced inflation by more than 95%, this often leaves most consumers wondering…why?

There are a number of reasons for insurance premium increases, one has to do with the way companies responded to the ACA. Many retail employers began spreading out workers, opting for more employees, lowering the amount of workers available to receive full-time benefits, Ironically mostly in government-based hourly jobs. Companies began going for less Cadillac plans and focused on silver packages, which caused a sudden surge in middle package buying, increasing the prices overall. But company reactions were a drop in the bucket compared to the next two components.

An aging market

As boomers grow older, their health demands rise; and while hospital use is up, nursing and doctor shortages can create three to four month long wait times for appointments. Boomers’ reliance on pharmaceutical medication outpaces any other generation. Medicare spending in 2015 was $137.4 billion on prescription drugs in 2015, up from $121.5 billion in 2014. Medicare Part B spent $24.6 billion on prescription drugs in 2015, up from $21.5 billion in 2014. A whopping $7.03  billion was on Hep C meds alone which cured maybe ten thousand people, and with nearly 5 million Americans needing treatment it’s easier to see why premiums are rising. But it’s not just meds they need. Surgeries and outpatient services ranging from colonoscopies to knee replacement are up across the nation as our nation ages.

Pharma Bros:
rtx25hgy
Valeant Pharmaceutical
s’ Ativan increased by more than 1,264 percent, accounting for $5.3 million in Medicaid drug spending;

Turing Pharmaceutical‘s daraprim increased by 874 percent, accounting for $16 million in Medicaid spending; and

Hydroxycholoroquine sulfate increased by 489 percent.

Each of these increases doesn’t reflect need by the consumer, nor a need for research in development. The price increases are a measure of market control given to exclusivity of production. Investment firms purchase companies with the goal of milking them for investors as they shift focus to their new number one product: their stock. These kinds of moves produce volatility and increase the prices insurers need to set to control for.

As the individual mandate is now set to disappear in 2019,  it raises a serious question, will consumers be able to tolerate Premiums which cost more than their rent/mortgage payments?

Warehouse Doors and Bitter Pills

What brings us here, to these locked warehouse doors are the restrictions on access from insurers, and medicaid . High cost pharmaceuticals, and the changing of their discount policies. And the lack of effort by governors to approach discounts because of the pending TPP.

I’ve been talking a lot recently about these things and how we get to here.:

The Locked Warehouse Doors. 
Locked_warehouse_door
if you were denied Sovaldi, Harvoni, Viekira Pak, or any other new HCV med, if you had to go through lots of hurdles for treatment; I urge you to tweet/post about them with the hash tag: #LockedWarehouseDoor.

What Happened to My Support Path?
Sovaldi_bottle_My_support_Path
Gilead used to offer My Support Path to larger audience, but they’ve clamped down on the discount in hopes of allowing more patients access to their meds by pressuring insurance companies to loosen restrictions.

Medicaid’s Silenced Epidemic
Silenced
Medicaid’s inability to assist the needs of HCV patients in many states unless they have permanent liver damage and depreciating quality of life. These restrictions are in place even thought preventative treatment would cost half as much.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership
Trans Pacific Partnership
An agreement that could worsen the already steep drug prices we have, and limit the power of insurance companies/Government based Health Insurance like Medicaid to get discounts.

Medical Tourism as Bad Tourist Behavior
medical_tourism
And how Developed Countries are hurting themselves and LDCs(formerly third world) when patients mess with the supply of Live saving inelastic goods.

Insurance, not just for those under 26.

…The preceding blog regarding King v Burwelll is located on my old blog and on HepMag.com

With the CND underway and news about ACA/Obamacare, A lot of healthcare related issues are on the table, nationally and internationally. If you’re interested in keeping tabs on what’s going on with drugs/pharma and all things narcotic internationally i highly suggest checking out the blog, or if you want something easier to digest check out the twitter hashtag #CND2015.

But as for the ACA/Obamacare…
Let’s talk Healthcare Insurance.
Healthcare basics:
Healthcare as an employee (which is the most common way about it in the united states).

Insurance and compensation are part of the bargaining agreement between you and your employer when you start working for them.

Insurance is a weird thing, but ultimately the employer is giving you a discounted insurance plan in lieu of other financial compensation. There are some companies that will pay you to opt out of their insurance, because it’s cheaper for them as long as they meet their units needed for group discount.
So when you get handed a dozen options from your HR department come fall, I’m sure you’ve noticed a few plans are ridiculously expensive. In some circumstances companies have executive plans which cover more than the options you were given.

Your pay-grade usually determines the allowance you get to buy a healthcare plan. It would be prudent to know that the ACA is the first real legislation to present a progressive tax system that extends to this compensation.

Why should you give two shits about all of this? Understanding benefits negotiations is as essential as negotiating your wages. Since it’s such an information disparity, most potential employees do not know what they’re going to get until they’re hired. It’s always good to know what insurance plans are offered by a company and how they compare to other options.

It’s also often the case that you may find that your doctor is no longer covered when you switch employers, even if it looks like the same plan. That’s because Healthcare plans usually have a list of doctors within their program. There are some medical groups that have associated healthcare insurance to alleviate this issue, and in a sense compete over your care without your say.

The necessity of Insurance.

Health insurance since the early 80s has been a rapidly growing part of paying for a hospital bill. Insurance is and always will be an all or nothing deal. Whenever Insurance becomes part of a marketplace it sets group rates and raises prices for those without insurance. This alongside Pharma patents, costs of medical equipment, and a disturbingly small pool of workers has helped to create some of the unusually high medical costs we see today.

Because healthcare insurance has become part of an employee’s compensation, healthcare is more often the primary means of payment for most medical groups. The employers bargain with insurance companies for rates and plans, those insurance plans present proposals to medical groups. For the most part the conversation regarding what you pay for healthcare is never up to your needs, and the services you choose from are what the companies have agreed upon. Limiting your choices as a healthcare consumer.

Exchanges allow for consumers to pick plans they would have otherwise never seen. Their major limit is their geographic region. If you’ve used Covered Ca, Healthcare.gov or even a private exchange you’ve seen how much better many of those options can be.
Payment without insurance is always higher, and if you’re savvy you might be able to negotiate a payment plan with the hospital’s billing and/or finical assistance dept.

But regardless you’ll pay more. This is one of the fundamental problems the ACA attempts to alleviate. The reality that if you’re employer doesn’t give you benefits(usually not fulltime), underemployed, or hanging income-wise out between 17k and 40k per year: you simply go without insurance, and risk falling into serious debt/health problems when something bad happens health-wise.

It also alleviates the issue of employer based competition by opening up the markets to consumers via exchanges.
In our modern society, being so close quarters and risking illness/injury daily, it is necessary.
So… I guess I should get to why I’m on this subject right now.
Well, the reason I’m talking about this is because this last week the Congressional Budget Office announced its projections for 2015. The ACA (Obamacare) has a very interesting track record.

While there are a lot of disagreements as to why these changes are occurring and how it affects us, esp. with King V Burwell presently in the Supreme Court. To insure our health as a nation, the subsidy is an important factor alongside the exchange.
What’s noted here are some relevant facts: Affordable Care Act(Obamacare) will have lower projections in terms of cost and number of people covered using the exchange.

So this is the summary full text of changes expected in 2015, back in 2013

And these are the real changes in 2015
In order to better illustrate the exact changes, I’ve made some comparison charts using the data from the Congressional Budget Office:

Table 1
Table 1

Here’s the neat bit of all of this, since we’re halfway between a census it’s hard to have spot on population projections, but 6 million less non-elderly people than projected is a doozy. With projections the relationships between the numbers are important. The goal of the ACA was the lower the number of uninsured. Expanded healthcare to 26 under parents plan, lower of full-time work requirements, the subsidy/exchange program, and 400% poverty wage definitions helped this relationship are all parts of the ACA that help accomplish this.

Table 2
Table 2

As Table 2 illustrates there is a drop of enrollees in exchanges and Medicaid. There is also an overall shrinkage of about three million people. Two things will change these numbers over time: As states allow their constituents to use exchanges, and as signing up through an exchange becomes more user-friendly we’ll see better reflections.

While politicians bark at each other, the key to keep in mind is the relationship between the numbers.

Those signing up for exchanges vs. less uninsured is nearly the same (13/20) 65% for 2013 projections while (11/17) about 64.471% for real 2015.
This relationship implies the success/failure of the exchanges as it relates to helping those who are without insurance, in comparison to projected numbers. The numbers are not much different..

Those benefiting from the ACA’s exchange and expanded Medicaid definitions also are very similar from 2013 projections (20/24) about 83.33% while 2015 real (17/21) about 80.95%.
This relationship implies the success/failure of the ACA’s exchange program and expanded Medicaid definitions, in comparison to its projected numbers. Within one year, a little more than 80% of the United States’ uninsured population gained insurance they otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s actually more than that, but the table 6 has more data to better reflect that question. This number is a close expectation of the direct effect of the program.

Table 3
Table 3

These are the big numbers most people are talking about regarding the success of the ACA/Obamacare. that overall Costs are down. Woohoo! Just Kidding. It’s really not that big a deal, spending allocations are very hard to project without a few years of historical comparisons.

Table 4
Table 4

Again, Table 4’s numbers reflect the overall shrinkage in projections for 2015 vs. actual. This is just a more in depth table of where that exchange enrollment from table 1 looks like. What’s important to note is that more people signed up who are unsubsidized than expected. Realistically this implies a success of offering exchanges to consumers, rather than the importance of the subsidy. This implies that states not allowing exchanges (state by state means that it’s plans better reflect their constituents) penalize their residents by lack of consumer choice at the very least.

Table 5
Table 5

If you want to count a huge success of comparative projections… it’s right here: Spending per enrollee dropped, by $1,540 per year.
It cost 30 billion dollars less than expected for its subsidies. The huge drop in per price enrollee eliminates the 3 million less enrolled(than projected) as a being a major factor in that cost reduction. Which means that as the program grows, it will cost less than expected overall.

Table 6
Table 6

Table 6 shows clearly and definitively that an overwhelming majority of uninsured population now has coverage. Success is hard define though, because yes, this is a goal of the ACA, however, it’s still missing a lot of people.

The trouble with a lot of this is that there were no clear “Success” guidelines given to the general public. What a politician says to the people, and how s/he defines a metric are often different. The more flowery language gives a program lots of room to fail or succeed. But as we’ve all seen, it also opens the door for serious slanted criticism, and interpretation. So instead of speculate what the actual goals of the program were, let’s look at the impact.

Warning here be minor economic analysis:

There are two million less uninsured than projected, and one million more enrollees did not use subsidies. These factors helped keep the percentages about the same as projected. As the number of people who are insured rise, it’s going to affect what those without it are paying nationwide. By using healthcare insurance, their rates are already bargained and while they are the patient they’re not entirely the consumer at the hospital.

e.g. If a thousand people pay rates, each one of them has a voice. Two hundred of them band together to bargain collectively under the name of insurance. Collective bargaining allows groups within that thousand people to command better rates by demanding a certain price. Because the hospital wants a guarantee that it can get those two hundred people lower rates can be negotiated. This in turn can push prices higher for everyone else. When the bargaining groups make up a good chunk of the market it can help push costs even higher. Especially since, the bargaining groups are usually stuck with an exclusivity deal with that hospital.

As more groups arrive and become more of the market, those who aren’t in the groups can face significantly higher rates than they used to. Eventually there is a point at which the groups will command the market together, at this time they will be able to break exclusivity either the group will seek more hospitals to grow its membership and/or because the hospital will try to compete with other hospitals. There’s not really a set point where this can happen, the number of competing hospitals, and area employers can play a large factor in the use and availability of buyers respectively.

The impact of the exchange will allow for more insurers to create more diverse products. It has and will continue to compete among pools of people who before were part of bargaining groups (usually through an employer) or simply individuals who didn’t have access to the insurance(be their rationale to go without: financial motivation, lack of knowledge or what have you).

What the ACA/Obamacare has created is a marketplace for competition, and as the percentage of insured Americans increases so will the prices for those without it, which will encourage them to be part of it.

Referring back to table 6, there is one area where the ACA/Obamacare is assuredly a success. It’s price per enrollee is much less than expected. Keep in mind that the projections for the uninsured population being 2 million less does factor into that, but it’s not enough to cause a drop that large.

The ACA/Obamacare has helped millions of people have access to healthcare, and it’s not as expensive as it was projected. In terms of efficacy and impact this isn’t government cheese, it’s a marketplace where you can afford to choose a health insurance program.