TAMPA - New drugs are proving to be a cure for hepatitis C, the chronic liver disease. Gone are the nearly-year long treatments that included painful stomach injections.
There are now medicinal options, such as Harvoni, that patients take once a day for 12 weeks. One round of treatment can cost anywhere from $17,000 to $120,000, but through the Veterans Administration veterans with hepatitis C can get the treatment at virtually no cost.
Tampa physician’s assistant Michael Mcnulty says he and his staff at James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital have treated close to a thousand veterans, and that 95% are now hepatitis C free.
Paul Munroe, 68, is one of those patients.
“Just because I went to Vietnam doesn't make me a hero - it makes me a marine,” Munroe laughed as he showed his air combat medal and pictures from his two tours.
Munroe is modest, but this Marine is strong.
“I'd come back sometimes with 40 holes in the helicopter, you know?” he said.
He cheated death in Vietnam and eight years ago was diagnosed with hepatitis C. It had already caused him cirrhosis and serious pain.
Munroe does not know where he contracted hepatitis C. He says it could be from tattoos he got more than 40 years ago or possibly shots administered before the war. Either way, where he got it was not his concern. He focused on how to get rid of it.
“It doesn't matter. Getting cured is what matters,” Munroe said.
Like many hepatitis C carriers, Munroe went through painful treatments and each round lasted about a year.
“Once a week I had to take a syringe and fill it up and stick it in my stomach every Thursday. I felt like I was going to die,” he said.
After two years, doctors at Haley Hospital came to him with a possible breakthrough. He started taking Harvoni - one pill, once a day for 12 weeks. He felt no side effects and afterwards was free of the disease that had consumed him.
“You know it's so serious to me. I'm almost in tears about it, but I really want people to understand there's a cure out there for them,” Munroe said.
Harvoni and similar drugs are costly. Each small pill costs thousands of dollars. But the VA has made treating and curing Hepatitis C a priority, and veterans across the country are able to get these new drugs for free or for their minimum $9 co-pay.
For those with private insurance the treatments can be costly.
“The insurance companies limit the treatment to patients who have cirrhosis or more advanced fibrosis, whereas at the VA we treat all comers," explained Mcnulty. "Anyone that we’re able to treat, we do."
Mcnulty says they’ve used drugs like Harvoni to treat almost a thousand veterans with hepatitis C.
Mcnulty explained that curing those with the ailment is critical because it can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer or a liver transplant.
“All around it’s just really, it really is a breakthrough,” he said.
Munroe is thankful he’s among those who are now hepatitis c free and hopes other veterans get the message that a cure is out there and available.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all baby boomers be tested for hepatitis C.