Georgia tops nation in wait for HIV drug help

Georgia has the longest waiting list in the nation for people with HIV to get government drug assistance.

The number of people on the waiting list for the state’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) stood at 1,348 on Jan. 19. Florida’s waiting list is the second-longest at 1,109, according to figures compiled by the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors.

ADAP serves HIV-infected people who have low or moderate incomes and no health insurance. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, and drug treatment is a key factor in preventing infected people from developing the full-scale disease.

Without enough funding to keep pace with demand for help, Georgia’s ADAP waiting list developed in July 2010. It reached more than 1,700 before the state received $3 million in federal funding last fall.

Officials at the Georgia Department of Public Health could not be reached for comment Tuesday on the waiting list problem.

Public Health has suffered years of budget reductions. This year, along with other state agencies, it must reduce spending by 2 percent, under a directive from the administration of Gov. Nathan Deal.

Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality, which runs an advocacy network for people with HIV, said Tuesday that most people on the waiting list are getting help through pharmaceutical companies’ assistance programs for low-income patients.

Still, Graham added, ‘‘There are a lot of concerns that people are falling through the cracks.’’

“We’re concerned about people hearing about the waiting list and not applying,’’ Graham said.

And if patients receiving drug firm assistance have to switch to another company’s program because of a change in prescribed medications, it can mean a gap in treatment, Graham said. “There is still urgency to solve this problem.’’

More than 4,000 Georgians are served by ADAP.

Reasons for Georgia’s long waiting list include the state’s high rate of HIV/AIDS; flat funding by the state; an increase in testing for the disease, which leads to more people being diagnosed; and people losing their jobs and health coverage, said Cathalene Teahan, president of the Georgia AIDS Coalition.

Given that the average cost of an ADAP patient is $10,800 per year, it would take about $15 million to eliminate the state’s waiting list, Teahan said.

Without early access to medications, if a patient without insurance has to be hospitalized, the cost could easily reach $100,000 or more, advocates say.

With the Georgia General Assembly now in session and deciding on budgets, Teahan said, “We’re working very hard to get more funding in the program.’’

The state has tried to move some on the waiting list to a new program for uninsured people who have pre-existing conditions. But only about 20 have switched to the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, Teahan said.

Recently, a loss of $3.7 million in federal funds forced Georgia to plan to reduce its workforce for HIV prevention. Here’s a GHN article about those staff cuts.

“There is not enough money from state coffers or the federal government to support a really robust Public Health Department,’’ said Graham of Georgia Equality.