The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has changed its prior position and is now recommending that all baby boomers should get tested for hepatitis C. This influential health advisory panel now believes that the universal screening of baby boomers would provide at least a modest level of benefit. But what does this mean for a changing health care landscape? For one thing, new insurance plans will need to cover any screening fees for their patients.
Currently, there are an estimated 15,000 Americans that die each year due to complications caused by a hepatitis C infection. If left untreated, this disease causes irreparable damage to the patient’s liver, including liver scarring, liver cancer, and eventual liver failure. The problem is that these complications may take decades to occur.
Should Baby Boomers Receive a One-Time Test for HCV
Of the more than three million Americans who are living with hepatitis C, about three-quarters of them are baby boomers, most of which contracted the virus decades ago. Unfortunately, most of them still don’t have any clue that they have this infectious disease, because hepatitis C is usually asymptomatic (meaning that it produces no noticeable symptoms). The highest risk individuals are those that have been users of intravenous drugs and anyone that received a blood transfusion prior to 1992. Before then, they did not have to screen donated blood for the hepatitis C virus (HCV).
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Has a Change of Heart
In November, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force held a different stance when it came to this important issue. At the time, they believed that screening all baby boomers would not have provided any significant benefit. This stance put them at odds with the CDC which had recommended that anyone born between 1945 and 1965 (the baby boomer generation) should receive a one-time test for HCV.
However, the task force changed its mind after reviewing the results of recent studies and some persuasive public comments that they received following its prior decision in November. Now, they say that screening the baby boomers should provide a moderate benefit at least.
The Ability to Treat Hepatitis C has Improved
Of course, this is good news for any drug companies that produce medications prescribed for hepatitis C patients, such as Gilead, Merck, Vertex, and Abbott Labs. These screenings will identify a host of new patients that will need to be treated for HCV. The task force’s change of heart is also good news for companies like OraSure Technologies, who make these hepatitis C tests.
The latest drugs developed by Merck and Vertex Pharmaceuticals have significantly improved the rates of cured patients when combined with other medications. Plus, other big companies like Abbott Labs and Gilead Sciences are racing each other to develop a new form of interferon-free drugs that will replace the need for weekly injections of alpha interferon, a drug that produces harmful side effects.
Why Did the Task Force Change It’s Stance?
In defense of their previous stance, the task force says they believed that the CDC had overestimated the number of hepatitis C patients that would develop potentially deadly liver complications, thus they did not think that screening all those people would be that beneficial. They also stated that they were compelled to change their mind following the results of recent studies and the improved ability to treat people for this disease.
The people that had submitted public comments following the task force’s preliminary decision argued that universal screening would indeed be more effective than just testing those that were believed to be at risk. For instance, it could be that some people just don’t remember the risky behavior they engaged in years ago, or they are just not willing to admit to their doctors that they once used illicit drugs.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force had originally given this recommendation a grade C, as in one-time tests could be offered to a select group of patients for little benefit in the end. Their final recommendation has been given a grade of B, which suggests that it will produce a moderate benefit. Under the Affordable Care Act, any suggested preventive services that are given an A or B are supposed to be provided free of co-payments to patients. Hopefully, this measure will protect a significant number of people from falling prey to this silent killer.