Free hepatitis C testing offered for Pine Belt vets

By BETH BUNCH,

Baby boomers, those people born from 1945–1965, are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults. And that’s true for the country’s veterans.

The Mississippi Community Veterans Engagement Board in conjunction with the state’s other Veterans Health Care Systems in Jackson and Biloxi, is offering free hepatitis C testing to Pine Belt-area veterans.

Testing, for veterans enrolled in VA health care, is set from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Thursday, March 15, at the Hattiesburg VA Community-Based Clinic at 5003 Hardy St., Tower B, Suite 402. The clinic is located on the Merit Health Wesley campus.

According to Maj. Gen. (retired) Jeff Hammond, who serves as director for Veteran and Military Affairs on the University of Southern Mississippi campus, hepatitis-C testing is important because it impacts many of veterans and ultimately if unchecked, could result in the loss of life.

 “It can also lead to liver damage, cirrhosis, and even liver cancer,” he said. “Most people with hepatitis C do not know they are infected, but treatment is more than 90 percent effective at curing hepatitis C, with only 12 weeks, with one pill a day in many instances.”

The only way to know if you have hepatitis C is to get tested.  The first test determines if you have antibodies to hepatitis C. If the antibody test is positive, a confirmatory test is performed to see if you have active infection. If you have active infection, then you should be evaluated for hepatitis C treatment.

Testing results usually are achieved in a short period of time (one to two weeks).

Since 2014, the VA Medical Center in Jackson has treated 553 veterans. Of those who completed treatment, 93 percent were cured. The Biloxi system has treated 1,152 veterans infected with the virius with a 93 percent cure rate.

Walk-in testing facilities across the state will be open on this date for testing.

“The VA is committed to ensuring America’s veterans have access to the healthcare benefits to which they are eligible,” said Hammond. “The VA cares for a population with one of the highest prevalence rates of hepatitis C infection in the country and they have greatly increased their capacity to care for veterans with hepatitis C.”

Since January 2014, the VA has treated more than 100,000 Veterans with Hepatitis C with state-of-the-art treatment. With further improvements in capacity, the VA has been able to treat 2,000 patients with Hepatitis C per week. In fiscal year 2015, the VA reallocated nearly $700 million to fund Hepatitis C treatment.

Testing is for those who are enrolled in VA health care. If you are not enrolled, and are an eligible veteran, VA staff will be on hand to initiate enrollment.

Those taking advantage of this free service need to bring their DD214 paperwork and a valid photo ID.

Veterans may start the enrollment process by calling 855-574-7296 or visit the nearest VA medical center or clinic. Veterans may also enroll online at vets.gov.