(TRENTON) – The New Jersey Department of Human Services on Tuesday announced expanded hepatitis C treatments for all Medicaid enrollees in the state, a policy facilitated by increased funding in the fiscal year 2019 budget. The improvement comes amid ongoing concern about increased infections due to the opioid epidemic and a growing focus on identifying and treating hepatitis C infection among Baby Boomers.
New Jersey Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson said that under the new policy, New Jersey Medicaid will cover hepatitis C curative drug treatment once someone is diagnosed with the virus. Previously, individuals in New Jersey were required to wait until their liver had already been damaged before accessing this treatment.
“We can cure hepatitis C and help combat the spread of new infections, and with this major policy change our administration is making clear that we are committed to doing both,” Johnson said.
Hepatitis C is a major cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer, and it is the most common reason for liver transplantation in the United States. An estimated 160,000 people in New Jersey have hepatitis C.
Today, hepatitis C drug treatment can cure people living with the virus. However, New Jersey Medicaid had restricted who was eligible for this treatment and required individuals to demonstrate liver damage before receiving curative drug therapy. That meant New Jersey lagged behind other states that provided more comprehensive Medicaid access to hepatitis C treatment. The state budget includes $2.2 million in state funding to make treatment a priority, which will result in an estimated $7.9 million in federal matching funds.
“This is welcome news,” said Joshua Spielberg, chief counsel for the Health Care Access Project at Legal Services New Jersey. “We have advocated for such a change in policy, which will ensure that all Medicaid beneficiaries diagnosed with Hepatitis C have access to effective medication to cure their disease. It will save lives and save money for the NJ Medicaid program over time.”
New hepatitis C virus infections are increasing most rapidly among young people, with the highest overall number of new infections among 20- to 29-year-olds. The blood-borne hepatitis C virus can be spread by sharing needles to inject heroin or crushed pills.
“Hyacinth AIDS Foundation is elated that Governor Murphy has enacted a progressive and proactive public health measure to test and treat hepatitis,” said Kathy Ahearn-O’Brien, the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation’s executive director. “The funds provided by the administration will ensure that all New Jerseyans have access to live-saving hepatitis C medication immediately upon diagnosis. Hyacinth began working on this issue over two years ago, in partnership with Senator Joseph Vitale, who has long been a champion for the rights of those living with hepatitis. As drug treatments have improved dramatically over the past few years, it makes absolute sense to treat immediately and not wait for the disease to progress to the point that an individual’s quality of life has been severely debilitated. This is a sound public health policy put forth by the Governor and we look forward to a continued partnership as we seek to end the dual epidemics of HIV and hepatitis.”
“Drug Policy Alliance applauds the expansion of Medicaid coverage for hepatitis C treatment,” said Roseanne Scotti, the New Jersey state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Liver disease, liver cancer and deaths from hepatitis C are on the rise in New Jersey and across the country and strong action is need. The incredible advances in hepatitis C treatment mean that most people can be cured - if they can access treatment.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75 percent of the 3.5 million Americans with hepatitis C are Baby Boomers born from 1945 to 1965.
"AARP is pleased to see that the Administration is committed to expanding Medicaid coverage for hepatitis C drug treatment,” said Evelyn Liebman, AARP New Jersey Director of Advocacy. “Improving access to this care with a focus on early intervention is simply good policy.”
Baby Boomers are six times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C than those in other age groups and are at much greater risk of death from the virus.
“Clearly, this is a long-needed policy change that will prove beneficial to many New Jerseyans,” Johnson said.