BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - At Open Health Care Clinic, it’s the job of Meta Smith-Davis to educate others about their health, transmittable diseases, and how to make safe choices.
“I think it’s important that people realize your health, your overall health, including your sexual health, is as equally important as your heart health, as your lung health, as any other part of your health,” said Smith-Davis.
For her, it’s a personal mission. In 2001, doctors diagnosed Smith-Davis with hepatitis C; she was one of 90,000 people in Louisiana known to be living with the virus.
Hep C is extremely contagious and spreads through blood to blood contact, such as needle sharing, sexual contact, and more rarely, blood transfusions. The virus attacks the liver, leading to liver damage, liver cancer, or even death. It’s sometimes called the silent killer, because symptoms often don’t emerge until the disease has advanced.
“The longer you have damage, or untreated disease, the worse your symptoms, side effects, and things like that can become,” explained family medicine physician, Dr. Byron Jackson.
However, there is a cure for the virus in the form of a pill taken once a day for 12 weeks. Unfortunately, the medication is expensive, costing up to $84,000 for a full course of treatment in some cases.
“We don’t have a cure for the common cold, we don’t have a cure for HIV, but we have a cure for hep C,” said Louisiana Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee. “But when it came it out, it was the price of a Bentley. You think about a state like Louisiana, with the budget we have, we can’t afford a Bentley for everyone who has this disease, not all 90,000.”
In Louisiana, around 39,000 of those known hep C cases are patients who are either enrolled in Medicaid or are prisoners in custody of the Department of Corrections. Because of the cost of treatment and strict qualification guidelines from Medicaid, fewer than 3 percent of patients in care of the state received the curative medication in 2018.
Dr. Gee estimates it would cost the state $750 million to treat every patient.
"That’s more than we pay for all of K-12, for all of administrative functions of government, and for all of corrections combined. Clearly, we don’t have the resources to do that," said Gee.
Gee says hepatitis C is one of the biggest health issues facing Louisiana, killing more people than any other infectious disease, including HIV/AIDS. So state leaders are taking a different approach to get more people treated and potentially cured.
Instead of paying for medication case by case, the plan is to develop a subscription model that involves the state paying a fee to a drug company in exchange for unrestricted access to the medication for five years.
After more than two years of work, the Louisiana Health Department (LDH) announced they will partner with Asegua Therapeutics, llc (a subsidiary of Gilead Sciences, Inc.) for the subscription model. While the final contract is still being negotiated, Dr. Gee says the goal is pay near the state’s current budget for hepatitis C treatment, which is around $35 million. LDH plans to have the contract finished by June and the program up and running by July 1.
In a recent press release, LDH explained “Louisiana has a goal of treating more than 10,000 Medicaid-enrolled and incarcerated individuals by the end of 2020.”
If successful, Gee says Louisiana could be a leader in not just treating, but eliminating hep C.
“This could be one of the major public health achievements of our time,” said Gee.
Smith-Davis is an example of one of those success stories. Her private insurance covered the cost of her medication and today, she is hep C free. She also encourages everyone to get tested, a point echoed by the state’s top health officials.
“I don’t think most people realize that getting tested should not be something you have to think about,” said Smith-Davis. “When you look in the mirror, remind yourself, how important is your health?”