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Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009

Opposition bill lowers hepatitis patients' costs


Staff writer

Four opposition parties jointly submitted a bill Friday to the Lower House that would greatly reduce medical costs that hepatitis B and C patients need to shoulder for expensive interferon treatment and antiviral medication.

Last April, the government started subsidizing the interferon treatment for hepatitis B and C patients after admitting responsibility for approving tainted blood products that further spread the already rampant diseases in Japan.

But the opposition parties — the Democratic Party of Japan, the Social Democratic Party, Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party) and the Japanese Communist Party — argue that medical costs are still too high and many patients have given up applying for the subsidized treatments.

At present, hepatitis B and C patients pay ¥10,000, ¥30,000 or ¥50,000 a month for interferon treatment depending on the amount of residential taxes they pay. The bill would reduce those figures to zero, ¥10,000 or ¥20,000 a month.

"We really appreciate that progress has been made," said one the hepatitis patients who gathered with others in Nagata-cho to hear from members of the four opposition parties. "We hope that the bill will be passed without a problem."

It isn't clear, however, if the bill will get the necessary backing of ruling party lawmakers, who predominate in the more powerful Lower House.

Currently, an estimated 3.5 million Japanese are infected with hepatitis B or C. At least 10,000 are believed to have been infected through the government-approved products.

If the opposition bill is passed, the government subsidies would remain available to patients regardless of how they contracted the disease.

"Although the Diet session is at the mercy of the political power game, we must have this bill passed during this Diet session," said Chizuko Takahashi, head of a JCP health and welfare policy committee.

According to DPJ member Kazunori Yamanoi, only 22,000 patients applied for treatment between last April and August — or roughly 50,000 people a year. The high cost of medical treatment is believed to be one factor discouraging other patients from applying.

At this rate, about half of the ¥12.6 billion government subsidy budget will be left unspent this year, according to Yamanoi, who called for large cuts in the amount patients must pay themselves.



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