Testimony Links Opioid Epidemic to Hepatitis C

A doctor, a nurse practitioner, and a health data expert testified Wednesday before the state legislature’s Budget Review Subcommittee on Human Resources. They linked Kentucky’s opioid epidemic to the Hepatitis C virus (HCV).

Danielle Revert is a nurse practitioner with the Hepatitis C Treatment Center. She noted that the disease has a 98% cure rate if diagnosed early. The biggest problem, she explained, is that a lack of screening leaves many people undiagnosed until HCV causes significant health issues, including cirrhosis and liver failure.

“The most common route of transmission for HCV is injected drug use, specifically sharing needles or other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs,” said Michelle Rose, manager of population health for the Norton Infection Diseases Institute.

Rose shared that 29% of all Kentucky Medicaid recipients with HCV are women of childbearing years. However, Rose and Revert cautioned that difficulties with getting men tested might skew statistics.

Dr. John Jones, medical director for Primary Care Centers of Eastern Kentucky, clarified that the lack of screening impacts more than men. He stressed the need for universal screening to better understand the virus’ spread in Kentucky. Jones also urged legislators to support primary care education programs, expand harm reduction programs (including needle exchanges) through primary care offices, and provide additional public health funding to identify patients and link patients to care.

He suggested that legislators allocate opioid settlement funds to combat the spread of HCV. In July, Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced that the commonwealth would receive $460 million in a proposed settlement with three opioid manufacturers. The Kentucky League of Cities helped broker House Bill 427 during the 2021 General Assembly, which requires 50% of Kentucky’s settlement to go to city and county governments.

“I think this committee can see the wisdom in using some of the funds to help clear up the mess that the opioid epidemic has caused and some of the side effects that we’ve seen with the opioid industry,” Jones testified.

Representative Deanna Frazier (R-Richmond) said she found the testimony “both enlightening and frightening at the same time.” She said she texted her local coroner and first responders during the hearing, and they explained that they were not routinely testing for HCV.

Frazier asked the panel whether that means Kentucky’s cases are more prevalent than what we currently know. All three witnesses answered that they believe cases are far underreported.

The KLC Board of Directors voted to continue legislative efforts in the 2022 session that help cities find solutions to the impacts of Kentucky’s substance abuse problem.