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Time to End the Military’s Ban on Enlistees with Hepatitis B

Image courtesy of vectorolie at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of vectorolie at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

One of the most glaring civil rights abuses facing people with hepatitis B in the United States today is the military’s continued refusal to allow anyone with chronic hepatitis B to enlist.

This prohibition continues, despite the fact that all military personnel are vaccinated against hepatitis B, and scientific data shows hepatitis B is not spread through casual contact.

“Our brave servicemen and women deserve nothing less than the best, yet many qualified individuals are being prevented from serving in specific roles and/or being promoted within the military’s ranks. That’s simply wrong,” said U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., in a letter challenging the military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits people with hepatitis B and C and HIV from enlisting in the Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This outdated and scientifically-baseless Department of Defense policy damages the civil liberties of many Americans.

  • Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, African and Middle Eastern immigrants and other ethnic groups are disproportionately impacted by hepatitis B. For example, Asian-Americans make up less than 5 percent of the total U.S. population but account for more than 50 percent of the 2 million people living with hepatitis B cases in the U.S.
  • Immigrants and their children are also disproportionately affected by hepatitis B, due to the lack of vaccinations in their countries of origin. As a result, they are barred from military service, which offers a path to citizenship.

What is especially heart-breaking are the young men and women who work hard to get into prestigious military academies, only to be dismissed when it’s discovered they have hepatitis B.

military-662872_1920This military code historically barred people with serious medical conditions because they were considered unfit to serve, suspected to incur high healthcare costs and could pose an infection risk to fellow soldiers.

The code prohibits enlistees with the, “Presence of … current acute or chronic hepatitis carrier state, hepatitis in the preceding six months or persistence of symptoms after six months, or objective evidence of impairment of liver function.”

But most people with chronic hepatitis B who want to enlist are healthy, have no liver damage, do not pose an infection risk to others, and are capable of performing the same duties required of their fellow recruits. Clearly, military policy has not caught up with current science.

This discriminatory policy is difficult to challenge, despite the best efforts of advocates including Rep. Lee and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R–FL).

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and chronic diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C, unfortunately has no jurisdiction over the Department of Defense.

Although the Department of Justice and CDC have issued clear, science-based guidelines that find hepatitis B-infected healthcare providers to pose no infection threat to patients or coworkers, the military continues to practice its discriminatory policies, which rob the military of talented and motivated recruits.

It is time to change these outdated and discriminatory policies. There are many good men and women waiting, willing and able.

Changing Jobs? How to Find the Best Employer Health Plan When You Have Hepatitis B

getting-a-job-200x300
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

You’ve just landed a new job with a better paycheck, but how do you make sure your new health plan covers the tests, doctor visits and medications needed for your or a family member’s hepatitis B?

Many people with chronic medical conditions find switching health plans can affect the quality of their medical care and requires a careful calculation of what their out-of-pocket healthcare costs may be in the year ahead.  There’s a lot to consider and doing your homework is essential to finding the best employer insurance plan for your health and your wallet. Two key questions to ask are:

Can I keep the same family doctor and/or liver specialist?  You don’t want to lose the expertise and personal rapport you may have developed with a provider. And, hepatitis B specialists are few and far between in many regions. Find out what doctors and specialists the new plan covers. Some plans offer several options, so find out which one covers your doctor. If the new plan doesn’t include your liver specialist, are you willing to pay extra to stay with him or her? For more information about health insurance terms and shopping for a plan, click here.

How do you make sure the new plan covers your drugs and lab tests? And how do you find this out without disclosing your hepatitis B? First, you cannot be denied coverage — or a job — because of your hepatitis B. The Affordable Care Act prohibits employers from denying anyone coverage because of a pre-existing health condition. However, you need to do your homework and look carefully at the deductibles, copays and coinsurance a plan offers.

When you are offered the job, or when you go for your benefits interview with the HR rep after accepting the job, ask for a copy of their health insurance plan and read it over carefully. It may be available online.  Ideally, you want coverage that covers the most and costs the least after you add up your monthly premiums (the amount you pay each month toward insurance coverage) and the copays (the portion you pay for drugs, lab tests, and doctor visits.)

If you or your family’s medical costs are high, you may find that selecting a plan with a high monthly premium may be the most affordable because your copays for tests and medications will be low.

To find out what costs you can expect (knowing you can’t predict every future medical event), try this exercise. Find out how much you paid during the past year for both premiums and out-of-pocket copays for drugs, lab tests, and doctor visits.

Now look at your new plan’s options. Assuming you have the same prescriptions, lab tests and doctor visits, how much would you pay under the new plan? If you have a choice of plans, apply the same test to each. Which plan is the least expensive when both copays and premiums are added up?

Look at a plan’s prescription pricing carefully. While health plans can’t openly refuse to insure people with costly, pre-existing conditions, some inflate the amount you pay for the two leading hepatitis B antiviral drugs (Viread and generic entecavir) to deliberately discourage people with chronic hepatitis B from choosing their health plans.

Every insurance plan has a drug formula overview in its description, which you have access to. It assigns a price “tier” to each drug. A low-cost generic antibiotic may be a Tier 1 and cost you only a $5 copay while a new, brand-name drug is assigned a pricier Tier 4 or 5 ranking and could be extremely expensive.

Look up any medications you are currently taking, or may take in the near future. For example, if your doctor has warned you that an antiviral may be in your future if your liver enzyme tests continue to rise, you will want to review your plan’s pricing for entecavir or tenofovir. If the health plan charges a high monthly copay for a generic antiviral such as entecavir, you may be able to file a complaint. Email the Hepatitis B Foundation at info@hepb.org for more information.

Reviewing health insurance coverage details isn’t easy, but it’s important to make sure your new health plan will be the best for you and your family.

What do you do if there is a one- or two-month lag before your new coverage begins? When you leave a job, you may be able to keep your old job’s health insurance coverage for several months. This is called COBRA continuation coverage. Under COBRA, you usually have to pay the entire monthly premium yourself, plus a small administrative fee. This may be costly, but if it provides good coverage and if you’re due for your annual physical, lab tests and ultrasound, or if you need to continue antivirals, it may be a good option.

Another option is the Health Insurance Marketplace . Also known as “Obamacare,” this helps uninsured people find and apply for quality, affordable health coverage, and low and middle-income people may qualify for lower costs based on their household size and income. Losing your health insurance because you’re changing jobs may qualify as a “life changing event” that allows you to apply. For more information on marketplace health plans and hepatitis B, please click here.

Another option is short-term or temporary health insurance coverage. For more information click here.

“How Did You Get Hepatitis B?” Why We Should Answer

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

Telling someone you have hepatitis B is almost always followed by the question, “how did you get it?”

The question can feel like an invasion of privacy or an indictment. Behind the question lurks a desire for reassurance that hepatitis B won’t happen to them, but of course it can. And that’s why we should answer and tell our story.

On a global scale, the story of hepatitis B is the story of humanity. How we and our forebears became infected results from centuries of human migrations, the transatlantic slave trade, political upheaval, poverty, re-used medical devices and ineffective public health policies. Continue reading "“How Did You Get Hepatitis B?” Why We Should Answer"

Know Your Rights: What College Students with Hep B Need to Know About Health Forms and Disclosure

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

This summer, students living with hepatitis B face a task that can be as stressful as SATs, entrance exams or writing college essays – completing their colleges’ health forms.

Some colleges and graduate schools require no medical information while others expect you to document in detail your allergies, immunizations, medical history and even undergo TB testing.

The good news is colleges want to make sure all students are vaccinated against hepatitis B, the bad news is the requirement can force students to disclose their hepatitis B infection. Here are some important things parents and students should know when filling out college health forms.

No school can deny you admission or treat you differently because you have hepatitis B. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disabilities, and that includes hepatitis B.

Continue reading "Know Your Rights: What College Students with Hep B Need to Know About Health Forms and Disclosure"

U.S. Residents Only: Reporting Discriminatory Behavior Due to Chronic HBV Infection

Unknown-1An important message from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) which pertains only to U.S. Residents:

If you or someone you know is dismissed or barred from a program due to chronic hepatitis B infection, report the incident to the Department of Justice, whether the complaint is against a State or local agency, a school or any private entity that serves the public.

As a friend, advocate or colleague, you have the right to file a complaint to report discriminatory behavior.  Fill in and submit the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Complaint Form (www.ada.gov/t2cmpfrm.htm).

Kindly return the form to the following address:
U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Disability Rights – NYAV
Washington, D.C. 20530

Or you may print and send the report via fax to the following number: (202) 307-1197.

Please note: you must be a U.S. resident in order to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice

HBV Employee Screening By Suppliers of Your Favorite Apple Gadgets -Tip of the Iceberg, But Commendable

Apple recently revealed a list of its suppliers of the iphone, ipad and other gadgets, and the labor, health and health and environmental violations against some of the offenders. Most of these violations were out of Taiwan and China.  Included in the list of violations was the screening of employees for hepatitis B. What will this disclosure mean to those living with hepatitis B in China and around the world?  Apple has responded to each of the violations that were uncovered and says it will end relationships with repeat offenders. Will this stop discrimination against those living with HBV? Probably not, but it may stir-the-pot, encouraging other corporations to do the same.  Apple has star power, and the ability to make waves due to their success and reputation.  However, it is likely that foreign suppliers will circumvent the system and continue screening its employees or prospective employees for hepatitis B.

The question is how a job making gadgets, or components for gadgets, for Apple or any other company could possibly pose a reasonable risk of HBV exposure to any factory employee?  Hepatitis B is not transmitted casually. It is not transmitted by sneezing, coughing, shaking hands, sharing a meal, or working side-by-side with someone on the factory floor or sharing an office with someone who has hepatitis B.  HBV is transmitted through  blood and infected body fluids through blood to blood contact, unprotected sex, unsterilized needles and from an HBV infected mother to her newborn during delivery.

Every day the Hepatitis B Foundation responds to inquiries from people around the globe. Due to the stigma associated with HBV, chronic carriers may be denied employment due only to their HBsAg positive status.  There are special circumstances where exposure prone procedures may put others at risk due to an HBV infection. This would be limited to health care positions that involve invasive procedures such as gynecologic, cardio-thoracic or surgical procedures that might put a patient at risk. These risk-prone occupations do not include – other health care positions, jobs in the food industry, the retail industry, being in an office, in a factory, on cruise line, or any number of ordinary jobs. A positive HBsAg test should not prohibit employment, or entering and working in another country.

There will always be discrimination in our world. Even with laws that protect employees in the U.S. there are ways to circumvent the system and quietly discriminate. In many countries where HBV is prevalent, discrimination is blatant.  And of course HBV screening is merely the tip of the iceberg with the violations and deplorable working conditions in countries like China. Eyes wide-open can be a little disconcerting for those of us with our favorite gadgets. Apple’s disclosure of these violations is commendable and a start in the right direction.  Hopefully other companies will step-up and follow their lead.