Washington state is cutting off poor people waiting to get new “wonder drugs” to treat the AIDS virus.
And Idaho soon may be forced to do the same.
“It is a tragic situation when we see the greatest hope in the last five years in arresting this disease, yet there may not be enough money to purchase the drug,” said John Glaza, manager of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare AIDS program.
The crisis was triggered in Washington by the popularity of a new drug treatment called “protease inhibitors” that costs patients about $40 a day.
Word of the drug’s impressive powers boosted demand for the state-run, taxpayer-funded HIV/AIDS Prescription Drug Program.
The program, along with its counterpart in Idaho, provides money to low-income AIDS/HIV patients for drug treatments.
Program enrollment in Washington has almost doubled since January. That, combined with the high price of the protease inhibitors, has sent expenses soaring from $53,000 to $143,000 a month.
Mariella Cummings, AIDS director for the Washington state Health Department, said her office had to “start turning people away” this week.
A recent budget analysis convinced the state the $1.3 million program - pulled mostly from federal coffers - would run out of cash unless the door is shut on new enrollees.
“The cost is growing so fast we can’t even predict it anymore,” she said Thursday. Left open, the program wouldn’t be able to provide drugs and intervention services to the 835 people already enrolled, she said.
“These drugs are effective and we want to ensure that all people living with HIV have access to them,” she said. “Unfortunately, demand has far exceeded our funding ability.”
Ann Stuyvesant, of the Spokane AIDS Network has heard about the drugs wondrous affects from her clients.
“It’s practically a cure,” she said. “It’s remarkable stuff. Clients are saying, ‘Wow, I’m going to live. What am I going to do with my life?’… Now we’re going to have to tell people, ‘Sorry, we can’t get it for you.”’ It is a drastic measure that Idaho Health and Welfare officials may face next month.
Until now, Idaho has not approved funding to AIDS patients for protease inhibitors.
However, a drug advisory group will meet on Aug. 21 to decide whether to approve the drugs and how to manage the payments if they do.
“I think we’re all really worried whether we can provide the necessary medication to all eligible clients,” Glaza said.
Participation in Idaho’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program has remained fairly steady over the last several years and “we’ve never had to restrict eligibility,” Glaza said.
But that may change if the state approves funding for protease inhibitors, said Lori Lochelt, North Idaho AIDS Coalition community AIDS coordinator.
The drugs cost so much that people may need to turn to the state to get it, she said.
Previous treatments such as AZT cost between $177 and $278 a month. But protease inhibitors cost between $365 and $623 a month. To make matters worse, protease inhibitors need to be taken with two other drugs.
That means a patient’s monthly bill could reach more than $1,000.
Idaho typically has about 40 patients it provides money for, Glaza said. If each were to use the protease inhibitor treatment it would cost close to half a million dollars.
“We hardly have half that money,” Glaza said. Idaho will have only about $140,000 to spend on such drugs next year.
In August, the advisory group will have to look at their eligibility requirements and other factors that will allow them to stretch that money.
“We’re going to make the best decision we can to reach as many clients as possible,” Glaza said Thursday.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Estimated AIDS cases
MEMO: Changed in the Spokane edition