Poor May Be Shut Out Of Aids Treatment Popularity Of New Drug Treatment Strains Public Health Budgets

Washington state is cutting off people waiting for AIDS wonder drugs, a move health officials call “tragic.”

The crisis was triggered by the popularity of a new drug treatment that costs patients about $40 a day.

Word of the impressive results of “protease inhibitors” boosted demand for the state-run, taxpayer-funded HIV/AIDS Prescription Drug Program.

Enrollment has almost doubled since January, and expenses soared from $53,000 to $143,000 a month.

Mariella Cummings, AIDS director for the state Health Department, said her office started turning away people this week because the program is running out of money.

Spokane AIDS activists say the situation could soon turn serious here.

A recent budget analysis convinced the state the $1.3 million program - using mostly federal money - would run out of cash unless the door is shut on new patients.

“The cost is growing so fast we can’t even predict it anymore,” Cummings said Thursday. Left open, the program wouldn’t be able to provide drugs and intervention services to the 835 people already in it, she said.

“This is a tragic situation,” she said. “These drugs are effective and we want to ensure that all people living with HIV have access to them. We’re talking about drugs that were only dreamt about this time last year.”

Ann Stuyvesant, of the Spokane AIDS Network, has heard about the drugs’ wondrous effects 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.”’

Anthony Porter, 35, has gained 30 pounds since he started the protease treatment a year ago. The Spokane man, who contracted HIV about 10 years ago, said the drug is so effective his virus is now undetectable by some measurements.

“I look and feel great,” he said.

Mark Bridges, however, isn’t so impressed with his results. “I don’t see a big deal in it except the days I do take it I’m not feeling good.”

But the 34-year-old South Hill resident said cutting off access to new patients leaves many without needed anti-AIDS drugs.

“If I didn’t have (the state) program back then, there’s no way I could have done these drugs at these astronomical costs.”

Bridges was enrolled in the program for two years before contracting AIDS and going on Medicaid. He said he now swallows about 90 pills a day.

Stuyvesant said the Spokane AIDS Network has yet to turn an HIV patient away from the program, but predicted it will happen soon. “I do anticipate it’s going to be a serious problem.”

Health officials suspect several thousand people in Eastern Washington are HIV-positive. There are 156 reported cases of full-blown AIDS.

For now, the state is still accepting applications. To enroll, an HIV patient can’t have an income of more than twice the poverty level. The cost of the taxpayer-funded drugs now routinely exceed $14,000 a year per patient.

The Health Department is working with AIDS groups to find money to expand the program, which also provides dental work.

The state is holding a public meeting in Spokane on Aug. 6 to discuss the program’s future and its current bind.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: Estimated AIDS cases

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Changed from the Idaho edition

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