Health crisis spurs $26 million request

WASHINGTON — Congress could be asked to set aside $26 million for Southern Nevada and federal authorities responding to the hepatitis outbreak in Las Vegas, Capitol Hill officials said.

The funding would offset costs incurred by the Southern Nevada Health District in handling issues stemming from the discovery of unsafe practices at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada.

Also, the money would expand efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop safeguards against the unsafe use of syringes and medications documented at the Las Vegas ambulatory care center and in earlier disease outbreaks in other parts of the country.

Six patients who contracted hepatitis C, a serious blood disorder, have been linked to the Shadow Lane endoscopy center, sparking an examination of procedures at such clinics throughout Nevada.

Notices were mailed to 40,000 patients of the Shadow Lane center. They were advised to get tested for hepatitis and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Federal and Nevada health officials sent spending plans to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is considering them for legislation, spokesman Jon Summers said.

Reid and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., will try to add the money to a supplemental appropriations bill Congress will take up in the next few weeks to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, aides said.

“When you talk about 40,000 people who are affected and now we are learning there are more, there are a lot of unexpected costs that come along with that,” Summers said Tuesday.

Reid, the Senate majority leader, “has the ability to leverage his leadership position to bring some money back to the state and not only offset some of the costs but also use some of the money to offset future cases in Nevada and across the country,” Summers said.

Michael Walsh, director of administration for the Southern Nevada Health District, said a $5.2 million package was put together in response to a Reid overture.

The district has requested $3 million for blood tests on 15,000 uninsured and underinsured patients and $1.3 million for follow-up testing on persons found positive for HIV or hepatitis strains.

The request also includes $491,000 to organize medical records seized by Las Vegas police from endoscopy and gastroenterology clinics that have been closed and to make them available to patients.

Another $140,000 is sought for hepatitis A and B vaccines recommended for patients testing positive for hepatitis C, Walsh said.

The funds would continue operation of the district’s telephone help line, Walsh said.

“The big lump is the testing and the follow-up testing,” Walsh said. “The rest of the things we are prepared to try to struggle through.”

Reid said the CDC requested money “for things they want to do nationally and Nevada-specific.” Summers confirmed the agency’s plan totaled $21 million.

The CDC is seeking funding for more genetic mapping of unexplained cases of hepatitis, Summers said. The aim would be to determine whether the infections originated at problem clinics or were present earlier.

The agency’s request includes awareness campaigns, with pilot programs to be rolled out in Nevada.

The CDC proposed to underwrite research into infection controls and safer medication packaging, perhaps including syringes that would become disabled after single use.

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