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Congress Hepatitis Hearing Thursday June 17, 2010 - Lawmakers urge quick passage of bill to boost detection, treatment of hepatitis
  'They note that a national hepatitis response requires $150 Million'
Reported in "THE HILL,, Healthwatch, The Hill's Healthcare Blog, By Julian Pecquet - 06/17/10 03:01 PM ET
Lawmakers on the House Oversight panel on Thursday urged Congress to quickly pass legislation to boost the detection and treatment of viral hepatitis, the leading cause of liver cancer in the United States. The Oversight and Government Reform Committee held the first hearing in several years on the deadly disease, which disproportionately affects blacks and Asians, and pressed for passage of a bipartisan bill that would boost funding by $600 million over the next five years. The hearing comes on the heels of an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report that highlighted deficiencies with the federal government's response to the epidemic. The report contains two dozen expert recommendations for improvement, including enhanced screening, physician education and the creation of a coordinated system to identify people who have the disease and refer them to care. About 5.3 million Americans are believed to have hepatitis - the disease causes 12,000 to 15,000 deaths a year - though many don't know it. "The current approach [...] is not working," the IOM report says.
The legislation under consideration, introduced in October by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), has 52 bipartisan co-sponsors. The "Viral Hepatitis and Liver Cancer Control and Prevention Act" is currently in the Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill would charge the secretary of Health and Human Services with developing and implementing a plan for the prevention, control and medical management of hepatitis B and C; it would also provide federal funding for state-based screening and early intervention programs.
Honda said the bill would eventually save billions of dollars by identifying sick people early. A study by the research firm Milliman found that without federal leadership, the cost of treating hepatitis C alone could more than triple, to $85 billion a year, by 2024.
"We can do a whole lot better than what we're doing," said Oversight panel chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.). "I think it's a disgrace to have a problem of this nature and to not commit resources."
The panel heard testimony from Honda and Reps. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). Cassidy is a hepatologist who co-sponsored the bill, and Johnson last year acknowledged he was undergoing treatment for hepatitis C.
Cassidy applauded former President Bill Clinton's children's vaccination program and said the Honda bill would "similarly save lives." But debate quickly descended into budgetary politics.
Oversight ranking member Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said Republicans would not vote for any new directed spending unless it's part of the budget bill, which has stalled.
Meanwhile, Democrats bristled at Issa's description of the word "earmark" to describe the bill.
A coalition of more than 175 public and private organizations launched a print ad campaign on Tuesday to coincide with the hearing. The National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable ad is made to look like a movie poster and reads "Mission: Possible."
"If Congress gets on the case now," the ad says, "the leading cause of liver cancer won't stand a chance."
Patient advocates say the Honda bill will help boost funding for hepatitis prevention efforts, which currently only get 2 percent - $19.3 million - of the budget allocated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. Advocates hope the Honda bill will eventually allow them to get $150 million a year.
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