World AIDS Day provides a moment for reflection, to remember those we’ve lost from HIV in our community. Yet this time needs to be about more than just remembrance. It should also be a day for action.
Earlier this year our organizations wrote the News and Record to call on our General Assembly to expand access to health insurance (Better access to HIV medications would save lives 4/8/2016) by approving premium assistance for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, NC’s state program that provides free HIV medication to low-income individuals. During this year’s budget process, we were thrilled to see that the General Assembly did just that. North Carolina was behind our peers across the South, and by authorizing premium assistance for ADAP North Carolina took an important step forward to provide better care for those living with HIV in North Carolina.
Access to health insurance will provide a greater range of healthcare services for those in need. It’s also a step forward for public health; studies have shown that HIV+ individuals who have full health insurance have better rates of viral suppression than those who only have access to HIV medication. Viral suppression occurs when individuals consistently take their HIV medication, and individuals who are virally suppressed will not transmit HIV to another person.
Premium assistance for ADAP is not enough to curb the HIV epidemic in North Carolina, and there is still more that needs to be done. Our state can not drop the ball when it comes to HIV treatment and prevention. We know the tools and policy solutions; the only question is will our policymakers have the political will to act.
We must continue to monitor and support a strong AIDS Drug Assistance Program. The rising costs of premiums and the outcome of federal decisions about the future of the Affordable Care Act may hinder the success of premium assistance in our state. ADAP is also supported by federal funds and voluntary rebates from pharmaceutical companies. Decreases in either of these funding sources could mean disaster for the hundreds of North Carolinians served by Triad Health Project in Greensboro and thousands across the state who depend on ADAP for lifesaving medication.
For years, state appropriations and funding for HIV and other STI treatment and prevention has been flat. This year, it’s vital that North Carolina General Assembly increase funding to help combat the rise of viral hepatitis in our state. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one third of people living with HIV in the country are coinfected with hepatitis B or C, which increases the likelihood of liver-related health problems and other life-threatening complications. Hepatitis can be cured, but the treatment is expensive and funds for testing and prevention are limited in North Carolina.
Finally, we can’t take the eye off on the ball when it comes to HIV prevention. Our young people must be armed with the facts about condoms and contraception, and the skills to navigate healthy relationships as teenagers. The advent of PrEP has also changed the prevention landscape. PrEP is medication that individuals can take that will significantly reduce their chance of contracting HIV. We need local leadership in our health departments, colleges (especially our HBCUs), and doctor’s offices to guarantee that those most at risk have information about PrEP, the ability to get a prescription, and the financial resources to afford it.
In their 2013 HIV Surveillance Report, the Centers for Disease Control released the cities with the highest rate of new infections per capita, and Greensboro was in the top 20 (as was Charlotte). Now is not the time to take our foot off the pedal when it comes to addressing HIV in our community. We have the tools to end new transmissions and ensure those living with HIV are virally suppressed and live long, healthy lives. To do anything else is inexcusable.
- Lee Storrow is the executive director of the NC AIDS Action Network. Reidel Post is the executive director of the Triad Health Project.