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Veterans Law

VA Disability Benefits for Hepatitis C

Michael Lostritto

March 29, 2019

Updated: June 20, 2024

hepatitis C treatment

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C virus is a condition marked by inflammation of the liver and sometimes leads to serious liver damage.  The hepatitis C virus spreads through contact with infected blood or contaminated IV needles, razors, tattoo equipment, or other similar items.  The early symptoms of this condition are often very mild, including: vague abdominal discomfort, fatigue, and joint pains.  People can carry the virus for years without knowing.  Over time, the virus can cause more serious health problems such as cirrhosis (i.e. scarring of the liver) and liver cancer.  VA officials report an unusually high rate of hepatitis C in United States soldiers and veterans.

Veterans Are at a High Risk for Hepatitis C

It is estimated that over 230,000 veterans are infected with hepatitis C, and approximately 50,000 more are thought to carry the infection without knowing it.  In 2000, VA Program Director for Infectious Diseases, Gary Roselle, stated “1 in 10 U.S. veterans are infected with hepatitis C virus, a rate that is five times greater than the 1.8 percent infection rate of the general population”.  Additionally, statistics show that people born between 1945 and 1962 make up the largest group affected by hepatitis C.  These individuals are more likely to contract the virus than any other generation.  Coincidentally, this generation consists of many veterans who served in heavy combat wars, such as the Vietnam War. Research shows that this high incidence rate amongst veterans likely has to do with the following risk factors:

  • Exposure to blood during combat
  • Receiving blood transfusions before blood products were screened for hepatitis C
  • Unsafe immunization techniques (e.g. jet/air gun injections, dirty needles and syringes)
  • Large battle wounds

Over the years, a greater number of veterans began applying for service-connected compensation for hepatitis C.

How VA Rates Hepatitis C

VA rates Hepatitis C under 38 CFR § 4.114, Schedule of Ratings – Digestive System, Diagnostic Code 7354. The rating criteria is the same as Diagnostic Code 7345, which is used to rate the chronic liver disease without cirrhosis. The criteria for each rating percentage is as follows:

  • 100 percent – “Progressive chronic liver disease requiring use of both parenteral antiviral therapy (direct antiviral agents), and parenteral immunomodulatory therapy (interferon and other); and for six months following discontinuance of treatment”
  • 60 percent – “Progressive chronic liver disease requiring continuous medication and causing substantial weight loss and at least two of the following:
    • daily fatigue
    • malaise
    • anorexia
    • hepatomegaly
    • pruritus
    • arthralgia”
  • 40 percent – “Progressive chronic liver disease requiring continuous medication and causing minor weight loss and at least two of the following:
    • daily fatigue
    • malaise,
    • anorexia
    • hepatomegaly
    • pruritus
    • arthralgia
  • 20 percent – “Chronic liver disease with at least one of the following:
    • intermittent fatigue
    • malaise,
    • anorexia
    • hepatomegaly
    • pruritus”
  • 0 percent – “Previous history of liver disease, currently asymptomatic”

VA Treatment and Research

Due to veterans’ increased risk of hepatitis C, VA has made it a priority to perform screenings on as many veterans as possible.  VA is the single largest hepatitis C virus care provider in the United States.  Specifically, as of 2016, VA has treated more than 76,000 veterans infected with the virus and approximately 60,000 have been cured.  In fiscal year 2015, VA allocated $696 million for new hepatitis C drugs.  This spending amount made up 17 percent of VA’s total pharmacy budget for the year.  Those who are treated for hepatitis C within the VA healthcare system are then entered into VA’s National Hepatitis C Clinical Case Registry, designed to provide population-based data.  As of mid-2018, VA has announced that all veterans in VA care who have the virus are eligible for treatment.

Currently, there are two main drugs that have proven to be most effective in the treatment of the hepatitis C virus: Sovaldi and Harvoni.  However, these drugs are very expensive.  High-risk groups, comprised of individuals who are at high risk of complications and need immediate care to prevent the virus from causing further liver damage, are identified as benefitting the most from these drugs.

Furthermore, veterans with hepatitis C virus and liver cirrhosis are significantly less likely to die or to progress to a stage in the disease called decompensated cirrhosis (i.e. a stage of liver disease in which the patients are at a significant risk of dying unless they receive a liver transplant) if they use statins (i.e. a type of medication) to control blood cholesterol.  Specifically, a 2016 study demonstrated that hepatitis C patients using statins were associated with more than a 40 percent reduction in the risk of death or decompensated cirrhosis.  Statin users were also less likely to progress to having cirrhosis at all.

VA’s new and ongoing research includes clinical trials of treatments, epidemiologic studies, investigations of the biological mechanisms of infection, and studies on identifying and removing barriers to treatment.  Additionally, VA is working on projects to improve the screening and testing methods for hepatitis C, and developing models of care to optimize treatment and clinical standards at all stages of hepatitis C infection.

 

About the Author

Michael joined CCK in September of 2016 as an Attorney, was named Supervising Attorney in 2021, and now serves as a Managing Attorney. His practice focuses on the representation of disabled veterans before the Department of Veterans Affairs and the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

See more about Michael