9NEWS Investigative Reporter and Air Force veteran Pat Carter.(Photo: KUSA)
KUSA - Air Force veteran Patricia Carter was having trouble getting a VA appointment
to diagnose a pain she couldn't explain last spring.
"Swelling here on my side," Carter said while gesturing to her right lower ribcage.
Carter, of Pueblo, is one of 300 veterans who filled out the 9NEWS Veterans Care Form last May, which 9Wants to Know investigator Melissa Blasius hand-delivered to the interim director of the Denver VA Medical Center.
"That was my chance to vent, and thank God I did because it got me an appointment," Carter said.
Carter received an ultrasound of her liver, which found cysts and "mild coarsening of the hepatic echotexture," an early sign of cirrhosis.
Carter was told it was "consistent with prior heavy alcohol use or Hepatitis." She would need additional testing.
Military veterans are more likely to have Hepatitis C than the general population. According to the Denver VA, 4,000 veterans have been diagnosed in their region, which covers Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Doctors estimate 800 to 900 of the veterans have advanced liver disease.
Grand Junction veteran Rodger Holmes died of Hepatitis C complications last December. His VA social worker became a whistleblower, accusing medical staff of providing inadequate care.
"Our hope and plan is to treat everybody," Dr. John J. Redington, head of the Hepatitis Clinic at the Denver VA hospital, said.
Dr. Redington uses telehealth technology to monitor and treat veterans with Hepatitis C in rural areas. Over the last few months, the VA also launched a computer dashboard application to track all veterans who have been diagnosed and monitor the severity of the disease.
Dr. John J. Redington at the Denver VA having a telehealth appointment with a patient in Montrose.(Photo: KUSA)
"My job is to find the patients, to locate them," Hepatitis Clinic nurse Becky Ashcraft said. "That's why I use the dashboard. I call them, get them scheduled, and get labs done and imaging done." She then sets up the initial appointment with the specialist. Ashcraft says this saves her hundreds of hours in reviewing patient records and it ensures veterans don't slip through the cracks.
Patients with advanced liver disease could qualify for a new treatment, which many call a cure. The medication administered over 12 weeks can wipe out the virus. However, the treatment can cost the VA between $50,000 and $100,000 per patient, and VA doctors say they have to make a cost-benefit analysis on each patient.
"That's what we are attempting to do, is getting to the worst ones," Dr. Redington said.
"Those guys are the sickest ones," Ashcraft said. "They are the ones that are going to be needing liver transplant, or they are going to need much more hospitalization."
After several more appointments, VA doctors determined Patricia Carter's won't need the expensive Hepatitis treatment.
While she tested positive for Hepatitis C antibodies, it appears she's among the fraction of patients whose body clears out the virus on its own.
"I'm so grateful for that," Carter said.
Carter thinks she was exposed to Hepatitis C while in military service 30 years ago, but was never tested for Hepatitis until this year. She urges other veterans to get a blood test and find out if they have Hepatitis C before they get sick.
To learn more, visit: http://1.usa.gov/1WCSfQm.
Va Oph Hepatitis Factsheet 508
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