HEPATITIS C: Bill Would Hasten Care for Vets
As hepatitis C incidences among veterans rise, several lawmakers are pushing legislation that would add the disease to a list of "presumptive service- connected" ailments, making it easier for infected veterans to prove disability and speeding up testing, treatment and compensation, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reports. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, Vietnam veterans account for 64% of positive hepatitis C tests -- rates at least three times higher than the general population. While some "traditional associations" attribute the anomaly to drinking and intravenous drug use, many experts believe the veterans contracted the disease through tainted blood supplied to them in battle. During the Vietnam War, hepatitis C was just "starting to rage through blood supplies," and in the 1970s and 1980s, one in every 15 units of blood was infected, University of Rochester liver diseases expert Dr. Thomas Shaw-Stiffel said. About 365,000 blood transfusions were performed on wounded soldiers from 1967 to 1969 alone, putting those troops at "major risk" for the disease. In addition to "[m]assive injuries from combat, transfusions, accidental contact with blood and jet-powered shots," soldiers also faced "service-related risks arising from shared razors, crude tattoos and forays into the field that meant not bathing for weeks," the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reports.
Stuck in Congress
HR 1020, introduced by Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), a Vietnam veteran, would speed up testing for the disease, and cover veterans' medical care, as well as provide disability compensation, but the measure is currently stuck in a veterans' affairs benefits subcommittee. Some argue that it is too difficult to prove the "precise origins" of the disease among veterans, while others object to including tattoos in the list of possible exposures. Nevertheless, Snyder maintained, "[W]e ought to err on the side of helping veterans. For some of our vets out there, (hepatitis C) is a time bomb." The proposed legislation could cost $30 million in the first year and up to $200 million annually down the road, as more veterans are diagnosed. In 1998, the VA reported 22,000 cases of hepatitis C, up from 6,600 in 1991. Because the disease can incubate up to 30 years before showing serious symptoms, experts predict that within the next two decades, U.S. rates will triple and have "a devastating impact, especially among veterans of the Vietnam era" (Ireland, 5/1).