By Diane Zumatto
The Veteran Service Organization (VSO) community has been pleased and even relieved to see several new drugs come onto the market over the past two years that can now cure most veterans who were unknowingly infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV) during the course of their military service. Congress responded quickly and generously to the Department of Veterans Affairs’) (VA) requests for emergency supplemental appropriations to allow the department to offer these new life-saving and long-term cost-saving treatments to veterans infected with HCV.
In fact, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MilConVA) provided $200 million above and beyond the VA’s initial request for FY2015 supplemental funding for veterans’ HCV treatments, and we remain highly optimistic that the final VA appropriation, whether as a stand-alone bill or as part of an omnibus, will now reflect an even greater level of investment in treating and curing veterans with HCV in light of the recent budget deal.
However, as encouraged as we were by this trend, we are equally dismayed and alarmed now by the trend we saw reflected in VA treatment data immediately following the start of the new fiscal year.
Despite the fact that Congress appropriates VA’s medical services account a full year in advance precisely to avoid a slowdown in VA services and treatment should there be any fiscal uncertainty with the rest of the government at the start of a new fiscal year, VA’s treatment of veterans with HCV dropped astoundingly to less than 400 for the first week of October, and has remained alarmingly low since then.
Congress has provided and continues to provide every dollar that VA has asked for to offer veterans infected with HCV with the latest breakthrough medical treatments and to generously and fully fund all medical services provided by the VA. Furthermore, until the new MilConVA appropriations bill with supplemental HCV funding for FY16 is passed into law, VA knows that it can borrow from within its medical services account to continue its previously aggressive pattern of treatment of veterans with HCV infections.
There is, therefore, no fiscal, logical, administrative, or other reason for VA medical providers to be halting or slowing treatment of veterans with HCV following the start of the new fiscal year. The VA should be continuing to treat as many veterans as it is able to with the money that it has currently available in line with established clinical guidelines.
Good stewardship of the money that Congress appropriates to the VA is of paramount concern to the VSO community and to the veteran community writ large, and we intend to closely monitor this trend over the next few weeks and months in order to observe and publicize, if necessary, whether the Veterans Health Administration returns to acting good faith in aggressively treating cases of HCV.
In the meantime, the VA should review its own prescription and treatment data for HCV patients and be proactive in ensuring that as many veterans as possible with HCV continue to receive the care and treatment that Congress intended for VA to expeditiously provide.
Zumatto, a U.S. Army veteran, is the national legislative director of American Veterans (AmVets)