Florida AIDS Drug Help Program Out of Money

By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida
By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida


State officials are desperately trying to figure out how to keep a program that pays for AIDS drugs going until new federal money comes down in April, caught up in a nationwide problem caused in part by a down economy.

The Department of Health’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program is $14 million in the red and by next month patients may not get their drugs, two Department of Health officials told a state Senate committee on Wednesday.

“We’re out of money,” Lorraine Wells, Program Director for Florida’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program, told the Senate Budget Committee’s Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee.

Help may be on the way. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Joe Negron, said lawmakers are interested in finding a solution to prevent anyone from going without drugs, and, he said, the governor’s office is also looking into the issue. A national foundation that works with the pharmaceutical industry may have at least a partial solution, as well.

The program is mostly federally funded – it gets about $85 million through the federal Ryan White Care Act – but the state chips in just under $10 million. The program pays for drugs to stem the disease for about 10,000 people in Florida.

But with the next round of federal funding not expected until April, the program needs $14.5 million, essentially immediately, to continue to be able to pay for drugs until then.

“We’re exploring options,” Wells told the committee.

The only way the Legislature could likely help would be to move money around in the current year budget, something that would have to be done by the Legislative Budget Commission. That’s one option that lawmakers are looking at said Negron, R-Stuart.

“We’re going to explore which avenues are available,” he said. “Obviously it’s a crisis situation. I know the governor’s office is looking at it as well.”

Another possibility is that a pharmaceutical industry effort may chip in and solve the problem. Several drug makers, led by a South Carolina company called Welvista and the Heinz Family Philanthropies Foundation have already set up a program where they give the drugs for free to anyone on a waiting list for a similar state assistance program – such programs run in every state and many have experienced cash flow problems like in Florida.

Heinz Family Philanthropies President Jeffrey Lewis said Wednesday that the state should talk to him because he thinks he can solve the short term problem, hinting that the industry may be able to help.

Florida, which has one of the nation’s largest HIV/AIDS case loads, is suffering the same fate as other states, the economy is causing a big part of the problem.

“It’s unprecedented demand is what it is,” said Jesse Fry, co-chairman of the Florida HIV/AIDS Advocacy Network. “It got a lot worse than anybody thought it would. People that are working and maybe lost a job to which prescription coverage was attached, if they lose that job they go right to an AIDS service organization and the demand was overwhelming in a very short period of time.”

AIDS patients are also living longer, increasing demand for drugs.

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