Hepatitis C is a viral disease that kills more Americans than traffic accidents, HIV or diabetes. More people need to know that because it’s generally curable when caught before it causes liver disease and cancer. They also need to know whether they already have the virus, which can remain dormant for many years.
The virus is passed by fluid contact between people, usually through sex, shared narcotics needles or blood transfusions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 get tested because the previous lack of hepatitis C awareness and prevention has left them five times more likely to carry the virus than other adults.
Last year, a study by a National Academy of Sciences committee said better screening and health services could save 90,000 lives by 2030.
New Jersey had 8,000 cases of hepatitis C disease in 2015, according to state officials, and an estimated 150,000 residents are carrying the virus.
Nowadays, most new cases are due to intravenous drug users sharing needles. Princeton House Behavioral Health reported last year that four in 10 young suburban addicts tested positive for the blood-borne virus, with half unaware they are carrying it.
There is general agreement, then, that testing for hepatitis should be widespread and easy — even in the state Legislature. But an inability to agree on all of the details of such a testing program has blocked it in the past and may do so again this year.
A bill requiring hospitals and doctors to offer hepatitis C testing to people at high risk passed the state Senate nearly unanimously at the end of March and arrived in the Assembly on Thursday. It has been advocated for years by Sen. Joseph Vitale, of Middlesex, whose father died of complications from hepatitis C.
An Assembly bill would require hospital laboratories and clinical labs to offer such tests. Its champion has been Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr., of Gloucester, a doctor who opposes legislating the practice of medicine, in this instance and others.
Other than who in particular is tasked with offering to perform the test or arrange it elsewhere, and ensure follow-up for those testing positive, there isn’t much difference in the bills. One is that Conaway’s bill specifies that if the lab performing the test is out of network for the patient’s insurance, reimbursement will be at the in-network or other agreed upon rate.
But here’s the problem: Vitale chairs the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, and when Conaway’s bill cleared the Assembly last year, it didn’t get a hearing in Vitale’s committee. Conaway chairs the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee, where Vitale’s bill died last year.
Hmmm. This sounds like a job for state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.
Hepatitis C testing is going to be done by labs, and surely the Legislature’s leadership can get an agreement on how that lab work will be ordered up and processed. The differences between supporters of the two similar approaches look minuscule compared to the deaths happening in the absence of this testing.