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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, there is a silent epidemic in our country that today threatens the lives of more than 5 million Americans. Of those people afflicted with this disease, 150,000 will not survive this decade. In 2008 alone, an estimated 56,000 Americans were newly infected while as many as 75 percent of all infected people did not even know that they carried this disease. Without further preventative action, this growing health threat will only cost more lives and hundreds of billions in additional health care expenses. This ticking time bomb is viral hepatitis.

That is bad news. But there is also cause for hope.

Treatment already exists that can eradicate hepatitis C in close to 75 percent of people with the disease. Another treatment reduces the level of hepatitis B in over 80 percent of those treated. There has been a vaccine against hepatitis B for decades that has left millions immune to that strain of virus. We understand how viral hepatitis is spread, how it can be prevented, and how to test people for infection. There have just been a string of significant medical advances that will improve the effectiveness of viral hepatitis screening and treatment.

It is clear that we already have the tools at our disposal to prevent, treat, and control the vast majority of these infections, now what we need is a coordinated strategy to put these tools to work.

That is why I am introducing the Viral Hepatitis Testing Act of 2011, which appropriates $110 million over five years to improve education, testing, and care for viral hepatitis across Massachusetts and in local communities around the country. This legislation is a down-payment on a national effort to fight and ultimately eradicate hepatitis B and C in America. I hope my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will join me in cosponsoring this effort.

Viral hepatitis is known as a silent killer because it can stay a-symptomatic for years before it leads to serious liver disease. It is the most common cause of liver cancer and yet doctors and patients alike are often largely uninformed about this disease. Hepatitis B is 100 times more infectious than HIV and has spread to an estimated 2 billion people worldwide while hepatitis C has reached about 170 million people. Chronic viral hepatitis is widespread and it is dangerous.

Last year, the Institute of Medicine released a report outlining a number of specific recommendations on how to combat viral hepatitis. To build on those recommendations, Assistant Secretary of Health Dr. Howard Koh convened a task force and developed a detailed, comprehensive action plan to combat the pervasive spread of this disease. These recommendations served as the foundation for the legislation I am proposing today.

As of today, there is no coordinated national strategy in place to fight viral hepatitis. The action plan put forward by Dr. Koh and his team seeks to rectify that problem by incorporating standardized viral hepatitis prevention and treatment programs into the health care infrastructure that already exists. The bill I introduced today would quickly implement a number of these programs and provides the Department of Health and Human Services with the resources to act.

The first step in prevention is determining who is infected with the virus so they can receive the appropriate care and will be less likely to pass on this disease to others. In order to determine the prevalence of the problem and to increase the number of people who are aware of their infection, The Viral Hepatitis Testing Act calls for HHS to work with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the Preventive Services Task Force to develop and implement effective surveillance and testing protocols. Whereas 75 percent of people carrying viral hepatitis today do not even know they are infected, improved testing could flip that disturbing statistic on its head in just 5 years.

It is also a sad reality that a number of minority populations are at greatly increased risk for contracting viral hepatitis. Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders account for over half of chronic hepatitis B cases. African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians and Native Alaskans also have disproportionately high rates of these viruses. Additionally, without the proper preventative care, there is a high likelihood that pregnant women who carry the virus will pass it on to their unborn children.

For those reasons, the legislation I introduced today also focuses on screening and treating high-risk populations and pregnant mothers for viral hepatitis. Educational programs targeting high-risk groups will empower people to protect themselves from contracting hepatitis, and ensuring that people who have viral hepatitis receive the appropriate follow-up care will further help to prevent the spread of this epidemic.

Additionally, providing doctors with the proper training on the causes, symptoms, and treatments would also go a long way toward stemming the tide of transmission and improving outcomes for patients who have contracted the disease. This legislation makes supplemental viral hepatitis training for health care professionals a priority.

To do the things we need to do in order to save lives and control this deadly epidemic, we are going to have to make a relativelodest investment. The Viral Hepatitis Testing Act appropriates $110 million over 5 years that will go toward implementing the educational, screening, and treatment measures required under this act. Rather than creating a whole new hepatitis prevention apparatus, this funding will be used to integrate these new and improved procedures into the existing health care infrastructure through grants to public and nonprofit private entities, including States, Indian tribes, and public:private partnerships.

The human benefits of this legislation are undeniable--these provisions will reduce transmission, improve the quality of life for people with viral hepatitis, and prevent the deaths of countless mothers and fathers and children. It is also undeniable that this is a wise investment of resources and good policy. These investments are a classic case of using limited resources to maximum impact, as we invest a modest amount of money today in order to save lives, pain, and tens of billions of dollars tomorrow.

Today, hepatitis B costs patients around $2.5 billion per year. With baby boomers aging into Medicare and accounting for an estimated two out of every three cases of chronic hepatitis C, medical costs for treating this disease are expected to skyrocket from $30 billion to more than $85 billion in 2024. Late diagnosis is a significant driver of costs, as more expensive procedures and treatments are required the further the infection has progressed. To put this in even starker terms, the cost of the hepatitis B vaccine ranges from $75 to $165, while treatment can cost up to $16 thousand per year for a single person, or up to $110 thousand per hospital visit, should the disease develop into liver cancer.

Viral hepatitis is an increasingly significant issue for Massachusetts. The Department of Public Health reports over 2,000 cases of newly diagnosed chronic Hepatitis B infection and 8,000 to 10,000 cases of newly diagnosed chronic Hepatitis C infection each year. Viral hepatitis is the highest volume of reportable infectious diseases in the state. Additionally, there continues to be a striking increase in cases of hepatitis C infection among adolescents and young adults in the State, which suggests that there is a new epidemic of the disease taking hold.

Until recently, the Massachusetts State Legislature provided $1.4 million for surveillance to detect outbreaks and behaviors of concern as well as for targeted screening and treatment of high-risk populations. Today, however, as this public health threat spreads, all of that funding has been eliminated due to budget cuts. Massachusetts receives just $104,305 from the CDC for an Adult Viral Hepatitis Prevention Coordinator. This is a valuable position but it is not nearly enough to support core public health services. The Viral Hepatitis Testing Act will allow Massachusetts to invest in a sustainable infrastructure that would improve health care for our citizens.

The choice is ours: we can either invest in preventative programs and more robust screening now or we can just let this epidemic continue to proliferate around the country and foot the bill later for the expensive surgical procedures, medicines, and hospital bills that will only continue to grow.

Without action, thousands more Americans will die year from preventa seases. We know what we need to do; now it is up to us to do it. Let us not make excuses. Let us lower health care costs for American families, improve the quality o our care, and save lives. I again urge my colleagues to join me in cosponsoring this important legislation.

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