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New Funds Could Shorten Waiting Lists For AIDS Drugs

The pharmacy at Atlanta's Ponce de Leon Center stocks medications for 5,200 HIV/AIDS patients. Workers there aren't sure how much an increase in federal aid will help cut Georgia's waiting list for a HIV drug-assistance program. (WABE, Atlanta)

The Obama administration last week announced nearly $80 million in grants to increase access to AIDS care across the United States. But will the money be enough to eliminate waiting lists for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program?

Advocates aren't sure. The program, known as ADAP, provides a safety net for people with HIV who have no means of paying for the drugs they need to fight the virus.

For the past few years, ADAP demand has outpaced funding. Nationwide, 1,800 people are now on a waiting list, with Georgia and Virginia accounting for more than half of those cases. The latest national data are here.

Murray Penner, of the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, says it's hard to tell if the new funding will be enough to handle states' waitlists. He thinks they will disappear, but only for a year or two.

"It's very difficult to predict these things, because there are so many variables that go into the serving of individuals that need medications," Penner said.

James Lark is one of the people affected. Now 47 years old, Lark was 30 when he learned that he was HIV-positive. He has gone in and out of phases when he takes care of his condition.

"I've been positive now for over 17 years, but when I first found out I just went with it," Lark says. "My brother had passed away with AIDS. I was dead within, and just kept living my life and wasn't taking my life seriously."

Three years ago, Lark was homeless when he decided it was time to get a handle on his health. He qualified for Georgia's AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which paid for his HIV drugs — nearly $20,000 a year.

Lark is now on government assistance and doesn't have to depend on ADAP. But he says his Social Security benefits will end in September.

"That means I'll have to go back on ADAP. And I'll be on the waiting list," he says.

Funding, drug costs and the number of people seeking treatment are constantly changing. All of those variables affect how many people are on the waiting list.

For example, Georgia recently adopted a policy of treatment upon diagnosis. Research indicates that means a longer, better life for many with HIV. But it also adds to the cost of care in a state that can't meet current demand.

The pharmacy at Atlanta's Ponce De Leon Center provides drugs and other services for more than 5,200 HIV/AIDS patients. But with the potential for hundreds of new patients, the center's Jacque Muther isn't sure how they'll accommodate them.

"It's going to be a big challenge," Muther says. "I don't know how they're going to meet it. This new money is not going to resolve that."

This story is part of a collaboration with NPR, WABE and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The AIDS Drug Assistance Program, or ADAP, is a safety net for people with HIV who cannot pay for drug treatment. But for the past few years, demand has outpaced ADAP funding. In some states, that means putting patients on a wait list for treatment. As Jim Burress reports from WABE in Atlanta, Georgia's waiting list may soon go away, but there may be other complications.

JIM BURRESS, BYLINE: James Lark is 47 years old and HIV positive.

JAMES LARK: My brother had passed away with AIDS. And, you know, to me that was blah, you know, I was just dead within and wasn't taking my life seriously.

BURRESS: Three years ago, homeless, James decided it was time to get a handle on his health. He qualified for Georgia's AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which paid for his medications - nearly $20,000 a year. James is now on government assistance and doesn't have to depend on ADAP. But that could change.

LARK: I was getting a little money from Social Security, the SSI, and that ends in September. And that means I will have to go back on ADAP. And I will be on the waiting list.

BURRESS: Faced with a huge budget deficit, Georgia implemented a wait list two years ago. It quickly grew to the longest in the nation. But the list is shrinking. Nationwide, 1,800 people are now on a wait list. Georgia and Virginia account for more than half of those cases. The Obama administration has announced nearly $80 million in additional HIV funding. But is that enough to eliminate the wait lists?

It's a little bit hard to tell. Murray Penner is with the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors. He says states' wait lists will probably disappear for a year or two.

MURRAY PENNER: It's very difficult to predict these things because there are so many variables that go into the serving of individuals that need medications.

BURRESS: Shifts in state and federal funding, drug costs and rebates and how many people seek treatment are constantly changing. For example, Georgia recently adopted a policy of treatment upon diagnosis. That means a longer, better life for many with HIV, but it also adds a cost burden to a state that can't support current demand.

The pharmacy at Atlanta's Ponce Center provides drugs and other services for more than 5,200 patients. But with the potential for hundreds of new patients, the Center's Jacque Muther isn't sure how to accommodate them.

JACQUE MUTHER: It's going to be a big challenge. I don't know how they're going to meet it. This new money is not going to resolve that.

BURRESS: And time is running out. ADAP funding is set to expire in just over a year. While the federal Affordable Care Act promises some help, advocates worry it has too many holes to guarantee comprehensive HIV treatment.

For NPR News, I'm Jim Burress in Atlanta.

SIMON: That piece is part of a collaboration with NPR, WABE and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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