HIV assistance program at capacity in Tennessee

HIV assistance program at capacity in Tennessee

November 3rd, 2009 by Emily Bregel in News

A drug- and insurance-assistance program for people with HIV and AIDS in Tennessee has reached its capacity, due both to growing financial strife for many living with the disease and an increase in HIV diagnoses, health officials said Monday.

The state's AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which provides federal and state funding to help low-income people with HIV and AIDS receive medical services and costly drugs, now has a waiting list for the first time in the program's history in Tennessee, a state official said. The program started here in the early 1990s.

"We recognize the urgency of the issue, but we fortunately have had a chance to plan," said Dr. Carolyn Wester, medical director for HIV/AIDS and sexual transmitted diseases at the state department of health.

WAITING LISTS

Tennessee is now one of nine states that have a waiting list for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. The others are Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

Source: Tennessee Department of Health

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The AIDS Drug Assistance Program is part of the Ryan White program, a federal program authorized in 1990 that provides HIV-related health services. For more information, visit health.state.tn.us/STD/ryanwhite.htm or call the AIDS hotline at 1-800-525-2437.

As of June, enrollment in the state's drug-assistance program hit 3,367, compared to 2,706 this time last year. Federal and state funding for the program in 2009 totals $25.3 million and barely has risen since 2005, Dr. Wester said.

Most people in need of financial assistance for their treatments still will be able to get it through pharmaceutical companies' assistance programs and hopefully through supplemental federal grants for which the state is applying, Dr. Wester said.

"Our No. 1 goal is to continue to provide access to high-quality HIV-related services and medications to as many individuals in Tennessee as possible," she said.

Pregnant women and infants who have not yet enrolled will be allowed temporary emergency enrollment in the program, she said. Nor is the program increasing eligibility standards or cutting any services for enrollees, Dr. Wester said.

In the face of the economic downturn, more people with HIV or AIDS are losing their jobs and losing their health insurance, making it harder for many to afford the rising cost of medications, Dr. Wester said.

Those drugs dramatically can improve the quality of life and life expectancy of people with AIDS, advocates said.

Without insurance or assistance, a month's supply of the drugs would cost $1,500, said Jerry Evans, assistant executive director of Chattanooga Cares, a nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance and medical treatment to people affected by HIV/AIDS.

The number of people living with HIV or AIDS in Tennessee is climbing. In 2008, 14,901 people had HIV or AIDS, an increase of 28 percent from five years earlier, according to the state health department.

Last year, 1,071 people in Tennessee were diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, an 11 percent increase since 2003.

The news that there now is a waiting list should serve as a reality check for those in the program who fail to get recertified every six months, which is required to maintain eligibility, advocates said.

Now, if they fail to do so, they will be bumped to the bottom of the waiting list, said Dr. Jay Sizemore, executive director of Chattanooga Cares.

"It's definitely an eye-opener," he said. "It's going to make us more appreciative of what we have and make us more willing to fight to get more and hopefully make our patients more appreciative of what they have."