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How Florida Free Clinics Are Battling Hep C For Free

Dr. Ronald Cirillo, left, helps patient Deborah Hatfield fill out paperwork before getting a test to see whether she has hepatitis C./Photo: Daylina Miller, Health News Florida
Dr. Ronald Cirillo, left, helps patient Deborah Hatfield fill out paperwork before getting a test to see whether she has hepatitis C./Photo: Daylina Miller, Health News Florida

The rising costs of prescription drugs are especially hard on people who already struggle to pay rent or put food on the table.

In this installment of our series on free clinics, a facility in Bradenton is providing a $90,000 Hepatitis C treatment to patients at no cost.

Dr. Ronald Cirillo and his assistant at the Turning Points free clinic in Bradenton are explaining the Hepatitis C test to another patient.

"It's a simple test, the risk factors are next to none. It's a finger stick."

Since arriving at the clinic last year, Cirillo has been on a mission to eradicate the virus, which damages the liver and can be fatal.

That means pricking the finger of every high-risk patient he encounters. Today, his assistant is drawing the blood, and squeezes enough to place on the end of a small plastic tube.

"And this little measuring tool goes into the blood and solution mix there. We are going to time it 20 minutes and that's it, that's the test. We have a little band aid for her? We can put that on."

A 57-year-old patient named Patricia, went through a similar process when she discovered she had Hep C a few months ago. She asked us to not use her last name because of the stigma surrounding the virus.

"So just because of my age I guess, they went ahead and tested me for it and it blew my mind that I actually had Hep C and the levels ended up being really high."

The virus, which can be associated with IV drug use, often goes undetected.  In Patricia's case, it had started to scar and inflame her liver.

There is a treatment. It’s a $94,000 drug called Harvoni, which cures nearly all patients. But Patricia didn't have insurance or a job. That's where Cirillo and his staff come in. Drug maker Gilead Sciences provides Harvoni for free to qualified, low-income patients.

Staff at the clinic help patients fill out the complicated application. Patients must have no insurance, be drug free for at least six months, and meet income requirements.

Patricia received the treatment, one large pill a day for 12 weeks, and will be tested again in three months to determine whether she is free from Hepatitis C.

“Had they not discovered it, really, and gotten me onto the program, who knows, you know.”

So far, Gilead has not turned down any of the roughly 100 patients who have applied through the Bradenton clinic over the past two years. By comparison, state records show Medicaid had covered the Harvoni treatment for only 72 patients statewide between the fall of 2015 and June of this year.

Gilead, which declined to be interviewed for this story, isn't the only pharmaceutical company that participates in these patient assistance programs.  And the Bradenton clinic is just one of many across the state that helps patents get the drugs they need for free.

Just to the north of Bradenton is the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, where Roslyn Hunter is assigned full-time to negotiate with drug companies on behalf of patients.  Each year, she secures millions of dollars in free drugs.

Out of the applications that I submit, I'm usually 90-95 percent successful in getting drugs for the patients.

Patients there and at other clinics across the state are getting help treating common conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.

A 2014 New England Journal of Medicine study shows that there are more than 300 drugs available to needy patients. On the retail market, those free drugs would cost consumers about $4 billion a year.

Back at the free clinic in Bradenton, Dr. Ronald Cirillo specialized in Hepatitis treatment for more than 30 years before retiring and moving to Florida. During that time, the available treatment for the virus had terrible side effects and was only about 30-40 percent effective.

When Harvoni was released in 2014, he knew it was big.

“It's the reason that dragged me out of retirement. This is easy guys, what do you need here. We have the cure, the disease is out there, my job is to get the disease in here so we can follow them and treat them.”

That's why he's hanging posters in a soup kitchen and a job center associated with the clinic, and why he'll test any qualified high-risk patient that walks in his door.