June 17, 2013

Hep C test bill clears Assembly

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Vocal New York, a grassroots advocacy group representing low income residents, and Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, are pushing for the passage of Hepatitis-C testing legislation in the Senate, with only a few days left in session. Photo by Cassandra Hamdan.

By RICHARD MOODY

June 17, 2013

People in black and white tee-shirts with Vocal New York printed across their fronts crowded the Million Dollar Staircase in the Capitol; signs, that said, "Hep C Testing = Saved Lives," and "Fight Hep C," waved in the air; chants of, "No justice, no peace," and "End Hep-C" reverberated up and down the staircase; Tuesday was a day to make history in the eyes of some 50 people.

"You are all making history here," Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, D-New City, told the group of advocates from Vocal New York, a grassroots advocacy group that speaks on the behalf of low-income people, and concerned individuals as they rallied behind a bill (A.1286/S.2750) — the first piece of legislation of its kind nationally — to add a new section to the public health law requiring certain health service providers to offer Hepatitis-C tests to people born between 1945 and 1965. The baby boomer generation has the highest prevalence of Hepatitis-C of any other generation, with 1 out of 30 having Hepatitis-C, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Zebrowski said that, though the CDC is not 100 percent sure why baby boomers are so much more susceptible, he believes it's because blood was not typically tested before widespread transfusions began in the early 1990s

Under the bill, if the test should come out positive, the insurance provider must offer follow-up health care or refer the infected individual to a provider who can, including a Hepatitis-C diagnostic test.

The bill would also require the state health commissioner to evaluate the impact of the legislation and report the findings to the governor and the Legislature.

The bill passed in the Assembly on June 10 and advanced into its third reading in the Senate on the same day. The bill was sponsored in the Assembly by Zebrowski whose father, also an assemblyman, died in 2007 of Hepatitis-C. "Three to five million people have Hep-C and most of them don't even know," Zebrowski said. He seemed optimistic about the possibility of the bill passing in the Senate, saying that all it needs is a "little push."

"We will get this all signed into law."

Assemblywoman Joan Millman, D-Brooklyn, who co-sponsors the bill, said her message was simple, "We need to pass this bill."

The rally was emceed by Bobby Tolbert, a board member of Vocal New York, who opened the floor to personal testimonies. One such testimony was given by a Diane Nunez who was diagnosed with Hepatitis-C in 1998 and went for treatment in 2003. "This is a pandemic in our communities," said Nunez, "We have to end Hep-C."

Hadiyah Charles, a longtime HIV/AIDS prevention advocate associated with the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Coalition, praised state lawmakers for taking a big step in national history and said that with this legislation "New York should cause a domino effect" of other states passing similar legislation.

Sammy Santiago, who was tested in 1996 for Hepatitis-C and was declared "undetectable," earlier this year found out he had cirrhosis of the liver. He has been getting treatment for Hepatitis-C for four months. "In the first four weeks I was declared undetectable again," Santiago said. Santiago stressed the importance of getting tested for Hepatitis-C, "That's what's important; we all need to be educated."

Assemblyman Zebrowski said he remains optimistic that the Senate will pass the bill.

George Santana of the CitiWide Harm Reduction Coalition spoke about his experience after being diagnosed with Hepatitis-C. "I've done the treatment. It sucks, anyone who has done it knows what I'm saying, but it was worth it," Santana said. "We must continue to fight, because I know deep in my heart this bill will pass."

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