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Shop Carefully for Lowest-Cost Hepatitis B Drugs When Signing Up for Medicare by Dec 7

Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

With the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs soaring, it’s important for people age 65 and older who live with hepatitis B to shop for Medicare coverage carefully before they sign up by Dec. 7, especially if they need costly antivirals and frequent lab tests.

As we age, our immune system weakens and loses its ability to suppress our hepatitis B infection. We may notice a gradual rise in our viral load (HBV DNA) and/or our liver enzymes (ALT/SGPT), which indicate liver damage.

We may also experience other medical conditions, such as cancer or arthritis that require immune-suppressing drugs that unfortunately enable our hepatitis B to reactivate. To lower our viral load and reduce the risk of liver damage, we’ll need antivirals, and they’re not cheap. Medicare recipients must shop carefully for the most affordable plan. Here are the three key Medicare coverage areas:

Part A is free. It covers most of hospital and nursing home care, however you still pay for some deductibles and copays. For example, if you go to a hospital for a liver biopsy, you will pay a portion of that cost if you only have Part A.

Part B covers doctor visits and lab tests, and it costs about $150 a month and increases based on your income. There is a deductible of $166 a year and you pay a 20 percent copay for many services. Instead of selecting Part B, you may instead choose a private or employer-sponsored Medicare advantage plan.

Part D covers your drug costs and it’s optional, but if you’re on antivirals, interferon or other medications, it important that you have drug coverage under this or a Medicare Advantage plan (such as HMOs or PPOs) that cover all Medicare benefits including drugs. If you have a low income, you may be eligible for assistance to help pay for your Part D plan.

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It is critical that you shop around before selecting a drug plan. Just like the Affordable Care Act’s Health Exchange, there will be fewer drug programs available to you to choose from this fall. You also need to make sure your plan:

  • Has your specialist or primary care doctor and lab in its network, and
  • Offers the lowest copay for the drugs you need.

When you shop for a Medicare Part D drug plan: You select from plans based on where you live and what drugs you take. For example, if you’re shopping for a drug plan to cover tenofovir (Viread), plan prices can vary by more than $1,000 a year. Comparison shopping is critical!

To find a plan, go to Medicare Plan Finder and enter your zip code and select the drugs you expect to take during 2017. It’s a good idea to sit down with someone who can help you during your search or call a Medicare representative at 1-800-633-4227 (1-800-MEDICARE) as you search online.

The drug plans have different pricing tiers for prescription drugs, a simple generic antibiotic can be less expensive Tier 1 or 2 drug, while a brand name drug like tenofovir can be a more costly Tier 4 or 5 drug.  Without Part D drug coverage, a year’s supply of tenofovir could cost about $12,880 a year. Before you select a plan, here are some suggestions:

Check the fine print: Make a list of all of your medications and check how much each plan reimburses for each. Search for any “hidden extras” you’ll have to pay if you’re using a brand name or specialty drug. Some plans have separate, high copays for brand-name and specialty drugs, which can include hepatitis B drugs.

If you need a brand-name maintenance drug (like tenofovir) that isn’t available as a generic yet, you may want to focus only on plans that have the lowest co-pay for that drug. Your other drug needs may be less expensive, generic cholesterol- or blood pressuring-lowering medication.

Consider both the monthly premium and the copay. You must consider both costs when searching for the best plan.

Does the plan require you to use a specific pharmacy? An increasing number of plans require you to use a preferred pharmacy, or even a mail-order option. Factor in convenience and your premium and copay.

Can you get discounts because of your income? You may be eligible to get all or part of your Medicare premiums, deductibles or co-payments covered if you have limited income and resources. Individuals with incomes less than $17,820 and assets less than $13,640, and couples with incomes less than $24,030 and assets less than $27,250, qualify for subsidies. You also may qualify, even if your income is higher, if you support other family members who live with you. Call Social Security at 800-772-1213 for information.

The good news: The dreaded “doughnut hole” or the gap during which you must pay a higher percentage of your drug costs, continues to shrink next year and will be completely phased out in 2020.

Even if you’re happy with what you had last year, do your research: Kaiser Foundation research found only 10 percent of Medicare enrollees switched plans between 2007 and 2014. Those who switched on average saved about $16 a month just on premiums. It pays to shop around.

Like your doctor? Make sure he/she is in your provider networks: Advantage plans can shuffle their provider and hospital networks each year. And their provider lists may not be included in Medicare’s online Plan Finder or the basic plan documents.

Contact your plan and ask for their 2017 provider directory before making a decision. Check if specialty facilities like university-based teaching medical centers are included. Or, call your physician and ask if they will be in the plan you’re considering — and, if not, where they’re going. And be aware: While doctors can leave a plan in the middle of a year, you typically can’t.

Why Raised Voices, Phone Calls and Letter Writing Are Critical to Eradicate Hepatitis B

2013-05-17_HepbUnitedEventBy Christine Kukka

Getting the medical care we need requires advocacy, because in the U.S. the quality of our healthcare–and even how long we live–depends on our income, ethnicity, gender and where we live. That is especially true when we live with hepatitis B.

Many affected by hepatitis B are not endowed with money, privilege or political power. Most of us are immigrants and people of African and Asian descent. This infection illuminates our country’s racial divides in healthcare. Asian-Americans, for example, have liver cancer rates 13-times higher than white Americans because they were never tested for hepatitis B, diagnosed or treated until it was too late.

Many of us are gay or injecting drug users. We are often uninsured or under-insured, which leaves us unable to pay for testing or treatment.

Our doctors, who often work in healthcare systems focused more on the bottom line than patient care, see too many patients in too little time. They may not know to screen us for hepatitis B, or monitor us properly and refer us for treatment when the infection damages our livers.

Despite good intentions, we live with a broken healthcare system and like any political system it requires the actions of patients, voters and advocacy organizations to improve.

Participants Perform a B A Hero Chant
Participants Perform a B A Hero Chant

The Hepatitis B Foundation and national coalitions including Hep B United are working within the political system to make healthcare more equitable and accountable.  They’re fighting to get more funding so the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Health have more resources to eradicate hepatitis B. Recently, these advocates scored a victory. Continue reading "Why Raised Voices, Phone Calls and Letter Writing Are Critical to Eradicate Hepatitis B"

In America, It Takes a Coalition to Combat Hepatitis B

Hep B United Summit members meet with California lawmakers in Washington DC.
Hep B United Summit members meet with California lawmakers in Washington DC.

By Christine Kukka

In late July, during World Hepatitis Day 2016, the fourth annual Hep B United Summit convened in Washington D.C. and dozens of advocates met with federal officials and brainstormed strategies to increase screening, immunization and linking people to care to eliminate hepatitis B across the country.

The Hepatitis B Foundation and the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organization (AAPCHO) established Hep B United in 2011 to address the silent epidemic of hepatitis B. The liver disease infects 2 million people in the U.S., and 67 percent don’t know they’re infected.

Asian-American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and African immigrant

Members of the Hep B United 2016 Summit in Washington DC.
Members of the Hep B United 2016 Summit in Washington DC.

communities are among those hardest hit. Crafting a culturally- and liguistically-adept approach on small or non-existent budgets to educate and screen these diverse populations remains a challenge for Hep B United’s  more than 30 community coalitions in 15 states and Washington D.C.

On the upside, the coalition’s organizations have educated 4 million Americans and screened about 40,000. However, large swaths of the country lack outreach efforts to prevent the spread of hepatitis B. For a map and list of Hep B United Summit member organizations, click here.

The coalition’s ongoing hepatitis B prevention efforts mirror HIV and hepatitis C campaigns that have sought to increase education, screening, and linkage to care. But in many respects, Hep B advocates face more challenges:

  • Because there is a safe and effective vaccine that prevents hepatitis B, many state and federal health officials assume the infection will go away on its own and government resources for screening and prevention have been minimal.
  • Many immigrant populations affected by hepatitis B have unique languages and cultures, which requires careful, individual approaches to each community.
  • Federal healthcare programs often under-funded or inhibit effective prevention work. For example, Medicare currently does not cover the cost of life-saving hepatitis B tests in seniors, many of whom are in high-risk groups because of their ethnicity or personal history. The federal government has proposed to cover screening, but only if it’s ordered in a primary care office.  Some of the most effective screening in high-risk communities often occurs at community-based settings or emergency rooms, far from a primary care office. Summit participants are orchestrating letter-writing to endorse the federal government’s proposed decision to cover hepatitis B screening under Medicare and to convince Medicare officials to broaden coverage of hepatitis B screening.

Summit also participants met with federal officials from the U.S.  Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) and the Department of Justice to push for more effective policies and increased funding to fight the world’s most common serious liver infection. One afternoon was spent visiting Congressional representatives to boost lawmakers’ awareness of the terrible toll hepatitis B takes on their constituencies.

“If community organizations can learn from each other and develop effective ways to educate people about hepatitis B and to get them screened and referred to medical care in the early stages of their infection, we can succeed in preventing new cases, save health care dollars and, most importantly, save lives,” said Jeffrey Caballero, AAPCHO executive director and Hep B United co-chair.

The following four hepatitis B advocates were honored at the summit for their work to eradicate hepatitis B:

Alex Shirreffs, Philadelphia's Viral Hepatitis Prevention Coordinator
Alex Shirreffs, Philadelphia’s Viral Hepatitis Prevention Coordinator

Alex Shirreffs, MPH, Viral Hepatitis Prevention Coordinator with the Philadelphia Department of Health. She was recognized for her collaboration with Hep B United Philadelphia to screen area AAPI communities. Her work ensures that hepatitis B remains a public health priority, and she serves as a critical liaison between Hep B United and other Adult Viral Hepatitis Prevention Coordinators nationwide.

Mohammed Abdul-Kadir, coordinator of Hepatitis B Coalition of Washington
Mohammed Abdul-Kadir, coordinator of Hepatitis B Coalition of Washington

Mohammed Abdul-Kadir, MPH, MSIS, coordinator of the Hepatitis B Coalition of Washington, (now part of International Community Health Services in Seattle), is recognized for his commitment to eradicating hepatitis B in Washington’s AAPI communities by bringing together stakeholders from across the state and providing free screening, education and linkage to care for thousands of individuals.

Hepatitis B civil rights advocate Nadine Shiroma
Hepatitis B civil rights advocate Nadine Shiroma

Nadine Shiroma, a national hepatitis B civil rights advocate from Seattle, has worked tirelessly with the Hepatitis B Foundation to eliminate hepatitis B-related discrimination in the United States. She is recognized for advocacy on behalf of hepatitis B-infected health care students, which resulted in hepatitis B being added as a protected condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The fight now has been taken to the U.S. Department of Defense, which currently bars infected applicants and discharges military personnel diagnosed with hepatitis B.

Moon Chen, director of the Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness, Research and Training.
Moon Chen, director of the Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness, Research and Training.

Moon Chen, Ph.D., director of the Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness, Research and Training in Sacramento, Calif., is recognized for making hepatitis B a priority for academic and public health research, and for continuing to research and identify effective hepatitis B prevention, screening and referral-to-care intervention models that can be replicated nationwide.

For more information about joining Hep B United, click here.

Closing a Healthcare Gap: Medicare Finally Covers Hepatitis B Testing in At-risk Seniors

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

By Christine Kukka

Medicare insurance pays for seniors to get vaccinated against hepatitis B, but it doesn’t cover testing to find out if they’re infected and need life-saving treatment. The federal government is now poised to close this glaring healthcare gap that prevents at-risk seniors from getting screened for hepatitis B.

Last week, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services proposed to cover hepatitis B testing in seniors age 65 and older who may be at risk of the liver infection.

Currently, the majority of the estimated 2 million Americans with chronic hepatitis B are over age 50, and the longer they are infected, the higher their risk of liver damage and cancer. This preventive screening saves lives and is cost-effective, because treatment with antivirals quickly and effectively reduce liver damage.

Until the Hepatitis B Foundation, Hep B United, the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations and the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable asked the federal government to cover screening,  seniors who wanted to be tested for hepatitis B had to pay for the test themselves. Because hepatitis B is a “silent” infection, causing few symptoms until cirrhosis or cancer develop, nearly two-thirds of Americans living with hepatitis B have never been tested, identified or referred to life-saving treatment.

The highest rate of liver cancer in this country is in Vietnamese-American men, many of whom were never tested for hepatitis B. By the time they are diagnosed, it is often too late. Here’s two more examples of the high cost of this healthcare gap:

  • The Charles B. Wang Community Health Center in New York City serves a large Asian-American population. When the clinic screened all of its patients for hepatitis B, it found 7.8 percent of patients age 65 and older were chronically infected and 45 percent had been infected in the past.
  • Another New York City study of African immigrants, which included all ages, found 9.6 percent of them were chronically infected.

Today, the most vulnerable Americans are infected at a rate 10-times the national average, yet until now the government didn’t cover the cost of screening them. Medicare did cover testing if there were signs of liver damage from other medical tests, but in the case of late-stage hepatitis B infections, a diagnosis often comes too late for treatment.

Screening seniors for hepatitis B has a life-saving ripple effect across generations. When hepatitis B is diagnosed in a grandparent, there is an opportunity to educate, test and vaccinate their children and grandchildren who are also at risk.

Under the new guidelines, which also apply to disabled people covered by Medicare Part B, Medicare will reimburse primary care providers when they screen people at risk of hepatitis B, including:

  • People born in regions with high hepatitis B rates, including Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and some areas of South and Central America.
  • Second-generation residents who were not vaccinated at birth and whose parents come from high-risk regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa and central and Southeast Asia
  • HIV-positive persons, injecting drug users, men who have sex with men, and
  • Family and household members of people with chronic hepatitis B.

This expanded coverage will go far to screen seniors, but gaps remain.

Under the proposed guidelines, only primary care providers can order testing, but many specialists including oncologists, rheumatologists and gastroenterologists see patients at risk for hepatitis B. The expanded coverage should include them and also pharmacists.

Additionally, both providers and the public need to know more about hepatitis B. Today, the majority of people infected with hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected. Patients often don’t share their true stories of activities that may put them at risk of hepatitis B, especially if it includes sexual abuse or injecting drug use, and doctors often don’t have the time or the skills to elicit this vital information. Along with expanded coverage should come public education to provide a common language for these difficult conversations.

Lastly, while providers are screening more Asian-Americans for hepatitis B, many of those at-risk remain undiagnosed, including first- and second-generation African immigrants.

This expanded Medicare coverage is long over-due, but we have a long way to go.

To read the proposed, expanded coverage for hepatitis B testing,  please click here.

To submit a comment about the proposed coverage, click here .


Shop Carefully for the Best Insurance Plan When You Have Hepatitis B

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

With the cost of health care and prescription drugs soaring, it’s important to choose health insurance carefully when you take hepatitis B medications and need frequent check-ups and lab tests.

In the next two months, Medicare recipients, people who get insurance through their jobs and consumers buying coverage through the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) will be selecting insurance plans during open enrollment.

If you take antivirals or interferon and have frequent lab tests and doctor visits, it’s important that you select the plan that:

  • Has your specialist or primary care doctor and lab in its network,
  • And offers the lowest copay for the drugs you need.

Continue reading "Shop Carefully for the Best Insurance Plan When You Have Hepatitis B"