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Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016 12:08 am

Rauner halted HIV/AIDS drug program before it started

Advocates say program would ultimately save state money

Truvada, a newly FDA-approved drug to help prevent HIV infection.


It was supposed to save lives. Now, it’s part of the rubble of a crumbling state.

A state program which would have helped prevent HIV and AIDS was trashed last year before it started, another casualty of Illinois’ budget impasse. Now, the program’s proponents are trying to revive and tweak the program, which they say actually saves the state money in the long term.

During the months running up to the 2014 election that saw Gov. Bruce Rauner elected, the Illinois Department of Public Health was working to implement a pre-exposure prophylaxis or “PrEP” program in Illinois. PrEP is a method of preventing HIV and AIDS, using a combination of behavioral intervention counseling to reduce the risk of exposure and an anti-retroviral drug known as Truvada.

Under Illinois’ program, people at risk of developing HIV or AIDS would have received help paying for Truvada, which can cost as much as $1,600 per month. However, Jim Pickett, director of prevention advocacy and gay men’s health for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, says the state would have been the “payer of last resort.” That’s because the program would only kick in after an individual’s insurance and a cost-assistance program by drug manufacturer Gilead had been tapped.

Illinois, which has approximately 43,500 cases of HIV or AIDS, would have been the second state after Washington to create such a program. The program was initially funded at $1 million, and Pickett says IDPH was nearly ready to roll it out when Gov. Bruce Rauner took office in January 2015. Rauner halted all “pre-launch” programs, ending the state’s PrEP program before it began.

“We were very unhappy, but I wouldn’t say we were surprised,” Pickett said. “We had been following the election and what the governor said he stands for.”

HIV and AIDS is most common among gay men and people of color, and Pickett says it costs around $500,000 per person to treat once an infection is established. Often, the state ends up paying at least part of that cost. Pickett says Illinois’ halted PrEP program would have saved the state money in the long run by preventing infections.

“You don’t see people on PrEP their entire lives, but if you get infected, you will always need treatment as long as you’re alive,” Pickett said. “This program would add a layer of protection at little cost to the state. I think this is something that appeals to both sides of the aisle.”

Although the program has been dormant, Pickett says it’s becoming clear that the cost of Truvada isn’t the main problem for many at-risk people. Pickett says many people are able to get insurance coverage for the drug itself, but the associated medical services like repeated lab tests are often paid by the individual, creating a barrier to PrEP’s adoption among low-income patients.

Ramon Gardenhire, vice president of policy and advocacy for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, helped write House Bill 4554, which would require insurance carriers to cover PrEP costs, including the associated medical services.

Gardenhire, Pickett and others have also met with lawmakers to push for funding of Illinois’ PrEP program.

“This is really a game changer in helping us end the epidemic,” Gardenhire said. “Never before have we had a tool so effective at putting a dent in new infections.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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