Samaritan Health Ministries, local doctor, website launch free hepatitis C screenings

Samaritan Health Ministries, local doctor, website launch free hepatitis C screenings A local charitable clinic in Cedar Park that services patients without health insurance is partnering with a local doctor and website to offer free hepatitis C screenings and treatments and raise awareness of the disease.

Hepatitis C largely affects the liver and is caused by a virus. The disease is curable with antiviral medications, but hepatitis C is known as a “silent killer” because many people do not show symptoms until after the liver is severely damaged, according to Samaritan Health Ministries.

The clinic launched a partnership in the spring with Dr. Imtiaz Alam, the medical director of the Austin Hepatitis Center, and Linkage to Care——a website to connect patients to local resources. Samaritan Health Ministries has been designated as a free hepatitis C testing site, regardless of whether the patient has health insurance.

Laura Carvalho, a family nurse practitioner with Samaritan Health Ministries, said the partnership allows patients to receive screenings and medications at little to no cost.

“Normally our patient population doesn’t have access to any specialized care because they do not have health insurance,” she said. “In fact, we’ve had a number of hepatitis C-positive patients who have gone without treatment for years because the medication is very expensive.”

The nonprofit hosted the first hepatitis C screenings at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Cedar Park on April 1. Samaritan Health Ministries screened 100 patients at the event and identified one with hepatitis C, and had Linkage to Care officials on-site to assist patients with positive results on next steps, said Sarah Carriker, the community outreach director with Samaritan Health Ministries.

She said the nonprofit plans to continue offering free testing for hepatitis C to insured and uninsured patients on an ongoing basis at future annual events.

Alam said it is likely the patients served during the April 1 event previously did not have access to hepatitis C screenings. He said the cost and the lack of access to health care in the area prevent patients from learning about a possible diagnosis, and for those who do complete a screening and test positive, he said only 50 percent follow up on another evaluation.

“So that was one of the reasons why we wanted to develop [the partnership] locally in the area,” he said. “Instead of then referring the patient to another clinic, where there are certain barriers—transportation, financial and so on—having it there, it’s convenient for the patient, so we improve the linkage to care.”

He said the partnership is part of an overall hepatitis C program he is working to develop in the Austin area. Alam said he is working to team up with The University of Texas Dell Medical School so that patients with hepatitis C can receive screenings and treatment in one place.

Alam also works as the medical director of HepCare Pharmacy in Austin, which helps connect patients with hepatitis C medications for free. He said he largely pays for the medications out of his own pocket and through donations.

He said his goal is to increase the awareness of hepatitis C in the community and help connect residents with available resources.

“Just because you don’t have any health insurance or access to care, that should not be a primitive factor in being cured of [hepatitis C],” Alam said.