Feature

Out-of-pocket costs put HIV prevention drug out of reach for many at risk


 

Beyond the money crunch

Price is one of many barriers – alongside patients’ lack of awareness and doctors’ hesitation to prescribe – that threaten to exacerbate the already stark disparities in PrEP use and HIV infection rates.

One major disparity is along geographic lines. The South, for example, accounts for over half of new HIV diagnoses but only about 30 percent of new PrEP users, according to data from AIDSVu, which maps HIV disease and PrEP use. HIV rates and PrEP use also vary by race and ethnicity.

“We are not necessarily seeing that those most at risk are the ones starting PrEP,” said Kristin Keglovitz Baker, chief operating officer of Howard Brown Health, a Chicago health center.

Gilead has recently gone all-in with advertising to reach people at risk, including print campaigns and TV ads that will air through the summer. Since 2012, it has spent $28 million to fund U.S. organizations that seek to raise awareness of HIV, McKeel, the company spokesman, said.

“We recognize that many people who are at high risk for HIV infection still face challenges in accessing Truvada for PrEP, and we are in regular dialogue with public health officials, advocates and physicians to better understand and, where possible, help to address these challenges,” he added.

But price is also an impediment for publicly funded programs, which have limited budgets and are now shelling out more cash for the prevention effort.

“If it was only pennies ... we would be throwing it around,” said Joey Mattingly, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. “Because of how costly it is, we have to control it.”

Some states – California and Florida among them – have launched PrEP assistance programs that can help patients cover the cost of the medication, along with required lab work and medical visits.

Beyond these state-based programs, some public health departments and HIV service organizations are hiring PrEP navigators to help patients navigate the maze of copays and deductibles, and to improve recruitment and retention of new PrEP users.

Washington, D.C.’s health department has doubled down on prevention, and Truvada is key in that effort, said Michael Kharfen, the department’s senior deputy director for HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration.

Insurance usually covers PrEP, and patient assistance programs should fill any financial gaps, he said. But when that isn’t feasible, the department steps in, distributing free Truvada starter packs to at-risk patients.

Kharfen said the city has in the past three years spent almost a million dollars just on Truvada pills, which it purchases at a discounted rate through the federal 340B program, which benefits certain health care providers that treat low-income people. And because of new publicity efforts, he expects the department will need to buy and distribute more pills – posing a conundrum.

Treating more people is net positive, he said. But “how do we sustain this?”

Medicaid programs generally cover PrEP, so they confront a similar situation. Outreach efforts lead to more beneficiaries who take the drug, but that, in turn, could subject the states’ Medicaid budgets to financial hardship.

States are spending millions of dollars on the drug. California’s Medicaid program, for example, spent about $50 million in 2017 and expects the costs to continue climbing. But officials said the expense is offset by long-term savings in preventing new HIV cases.

Massachusetts’ Medicaid program spent about $22 million on Truvada that same year – about $18,000 per beneficiary, according to a spokeswoman for the agency’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Those figures don’t account for rebates the state receives from Gilead, which are undisclosed and considered proprietary information.

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