May 16, 2011
In a breath of fresh air, The New York Times Op/Ed writer Charles M. Blow provides a well-rounded, well-researched, and thought-provoking commentary on the need for our government to pay more attention to the ADAP Crisis.
AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP) provide financial assistance to low-income people living with HIV/AIDS in paying for their critical and life-saving medications. As HIV meds continue to be incredibly expensive, more and more people are seeking financial assistance. Unfortunately, states across the country continue to cut funding to this valuable program, thereby denying these crucial medications to thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS.
HIV medications are necessary to treat and manage HIV/AIDS and to prevent disease progression. These medications are necessary to keep a person living with HIV/AIDS alive. Indeed, they are the very reason HIV is now a chronic disease, and not acutely life-threatening. Yet with cuts in funding, and other limitations to access to the medications, many HIV-positive people will no doubt experience a sharp decline in their health. HIV/AIDS will become a seriously life-threatening disease.
This is all unnecessary and preventable. As The New York Times article makes clear from the start, "treatment as prevention." The piece highlights recent research that found that HIV-positive individuals who were on antiretroviral medications from the time of their diagnosis (early treatment) were 96 percent less likely to pass on the disease than those who were not on early treatment. This is huge news in the world of HIV/AIDS for two reasons:
As ADAPs across the country cut their funding and change their criteria for eligibility, this research shows that to continue to cut funding to ADAPs is doing a huge disservice to those living with HIV/AIDS and to HIV prevention efforts.
This is an issue close to my heart. I've been writing and advocating around the ADAP Crisis for months now. States continue to underfund their programs and enact longer waiting lists. Some states are revamping the criteria for eligibility for the program (including indicating that a person's immune system needs to be further compromised before financial assistance can be provided, shifting the income level that would indicate a person's need for assistance, and other program cost-containment strategies) thereby cutting more and more people from the program altogether.
In addition, pharmaceutical companies almost universally ignore the pleas to lower the cost of these insanely expensive medications. Here's a striking example of the cost disparity for HIV/AIDS medications: one newer medication by Merck, called Isentress, can cost over $13,000 a year. By comparison, the popular cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor costs around $2 per day, or $730 a year. Seriously?
For The New York Times to publish an Op/Ed on this issue is huge. Blow clearly did his research and highlights many of the bleak statistics and outcomes of underfunding ADAPs. He is firm and persuasive in his writing. Exactly the type of commentary needed to raise awareness. In the 30-year history of HIV/AIDS, there have been incredible advancements in treatments. Now, HIV is a chronic disease. People can live long, healthy lives with HIV... when they are on a consistent, specific and life-long medication regimen. People can still die from complications related to HIV disease progression if they are not on a medication regimen.
Blow's point that many of those who need assistance are those who are some of our most disenfranchised members of society cannot be glossed over. Many of the HIV-positive patients who are cut from ADAPs are those with little to no political power or financial resources. Our nation's financial climate is not improving and as such, many of the most vulnerable residents are the ones who will suffer the consequences. In addition, many of these people are stigmatized and disenfranchised for multiple reasons: for being HIV positive, for living in poverty, for being a person of color, for being gay. Historically, these are the populations most often ignored and marginalized by our nation. The ADAP Crisis encompasses this and as such, it too has been ignored.
Blow writes: "Not only is it morally reprehensible to restrict or deny life-saving drugs to those who need them (talk about death panels), it is a colossal miscalculation of public health policy, not to mention fiscally irresponsible."
If our nation continues to treat people living with HIV/AIDS in this way, we will no doubt repeat the mistakes of the epidemic early on. We will see a resurgence in the spread of HIV. People will not seek testing as they will fear the implications of a positive result. There is already intense fear and stigma attached to an HIV-positive diagnosis. When we add lack of support, financial burden, lack of treatment, further stigma and discrimination, HIV/AIDS will become silent once again. As we all learned from the early years of the epidemic: silence = death.
We all need to do our part to ensure HIV/AIDS does not go silent again. Let's hope Congress is listening.