Clinton administration officials say they will soon propose expanding Medicaid to cover low-income people who have been infected with the virus that causes AIDS but do not show any symptoms of the disease.
The government could then pay for potent, costly drugs that block development of AIDS.
Researchers recommend use of such drugs, including protease inhibitors, soon after a person has been infected with HIV, which causes AIDS. In clinical trials reported over the last 18 months, the drugs have proved surprisingly effective in halting the progress of the disease.
Under current federal rules, if patients develop AIDS and become disabled, they can qualify for Medicaid. The new drugs often prevent disability, but patients are typically unable to obtain them until they become severely ill with AIDS.
White House officials and federal health officials said they would not ask Congress to change the law, but would expand coverage by using their authority to conduct and approve state demonstration projects.
A summary of the initiative, written by the Department of Health and Human Services, says it will “assess whether eligibility for Medicaid in the earlier stages of HIV infection is effective in reducing Medicaid costs of care.”
The new drugs can be expensive, costing $8,000 to $16,000 a year. But federal officials said the drugs could save the government money by reducing the need for hospital care.
Vice President Al Gore, who requested the studies that led to the new proposal, said: “Our view is that getting these drugs to people earlier won’t cost more in the long run. It may even save money. It will certainly save lives.”
In New York City and in the United States as a whole, the number of deaths from AIDS dropped last year for the first time since the epidemic began in 1981. Health officials cited the new drug therapies as a major reason.