Op-ed published in the Providence Journal on November 24, 2017.
Rhode Island blocks life-saving treatment for people living with Hepatitis C. The state Department of Human Services applies unnecessary restrictions on Medicaid patients suffering from this disease. These restrictions not only contradict medical and legal advice, but they impair Rhode Island’s ability to address a public health crisis.
Rhode Island’s restrictions form significant barriers to care that are medically unadvisable. Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is the deadliest infectious disease in the United States. It causes liver inflammation, which can lead to irreparable scarring and failure. Early treatment is more effective and prevents cirrhosis and liver cancer. Restrictions, such as waiting periods, are not necessary for the medication’s success. In fact, they delay care and put Rhode Islanders at risk.
Not only are the restrictions medically unnecessary, they violate federal law. State Medicaid agencies cannot set policies that produce unreasonable restrictions to medically necessary care. Despite this legal obligation, Rhode Island officials delay access to the HCV cure and force residents to suffer years of liver deterioration.
Rhode Island is experiencing concurrent and interconnected epidemics of Hepatitis C, opioid dependence, and overdose. Experts at Brown University have found that while HCV screening is common, follow-up care is often lacking. This deficiency drives the spread of the virus, undermines efforts to successfully engage opioid users in treatment, and results in avoidable deaths.
State officials can reverse these trends. Working with advocates to implement a campaign to eliminate HCV will save lives, prevent further transmission, and serve as a conduit to engage opioid users in rehabilitative care.
Patients living in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where barriers to HCV treatment have been eliminated, are readily cured of Hepatitis C. We find it unconscionable that if patients live a few miles south or east in Rhode Island, officials block life-saving treatment.
Instead of barring access to the HCV cure, Rhode Island officials should be supporting the health and well-being of the state’s residents.
Maryanne Tomazic, is a clinical fellow at the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School. Abbe Muller, R.N., is a doctoral student at the Yale School of Nursing.