When Leonard went to his family doctor for a regularly scheduled checkup, the last thing he expected was liver trouble.
“My blood enzymes were very high,” recalled the retired middle school administrator. “My doctor decided to do the hepatitis screen. No A or B, but definitely C.”
Like thousands of other people, Leonard had contracted the hepatitis C virus (HCV) without knowing it and showed almost no symptoms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 2.4 million people have the chronic form of the disease, meaning they’ve been infected for more than six months with one of the leading causes of cirrhosis and liver cancer, and the most common reason for liver transplantation. What many don’t know is that with proper medication, hepatitis C is curable.
“I thought it was terminal,” Leonard said. “My doctor dispelled that immediately and indicated a relatively high cure rate with proper meds.”
One reason so many people are unknowingly infected with HCV is the stigma associated with the disease. Many assume that only those who engage in high-risk activities like intravenous drug use can be infected, which isn’t true.
While sharing needles is one of the biggest risks for HCV, other common vectors include needlestick injuries in healthcare workers; sharing common items that may have been exposed to someone else’s blood, such as razors and toothbrushes; sexual intercourse with an infected person; or getting a tattoo or body piercing without proper sanitary practices.
Sometimes there’s no obvious vector for infection. That makes HCV screening as part of a regularly scheduled checkup incredibly important.
“In my case, I never did learn how I was infected,” Leonard said. “I lived none of the high-risk lifestyles.”
After his diagnosis, Leonard discovered something else few people know about HCV: the incredibly high cost of treatment.
“A three-month regimen — one pill per day — would cost about $72,000,” Leonard said. His doctor’s office worked on his behalf to reduce the cost, getting it down to about $12,000.
“That was great, but still out of reach,” he recalled. “It was foreboding.”
When diagnosed with HCV and discovering the high cost of the life-saving medications required, many people despair or, worse, try to live with the disease. But, as Leonard discovered, there are several options that can help make treatment affordable.
One option is to contact the pharmaceutical manufacturer directly — many have in-house assistance programs for people with qualifying finances. Another is to research organizations that offer copayment assistance programs or patient assistance programs (PAPs).
PAPs are designed to help those who have either private or government insurance pay for their out-of-pocket costs, such as medication copayments and deductibles. In addition, some PAPs offer specific programs to provide assistance to Medicare patients who cannot take advantage of coupon or copayment programs offered by manufacturers.
For those who don’t qualify for these programs, a final option is to identify a patient advocacy organization that can offer assistance.
For Leonard, the lessons of his experience are clear.
“Follow the directions of your healthcare professionals,” he advised. “Put the usual anxiety behind you. Hep C will be cured.”