HIV program caps enrollment

Health experts worry as budget cuts prompt state's drug assistance to turn away new patients.

Staff WriterJanuary 26, 2010 

— The state's drug assistance program for HIV patients has been capped at its current enrollment, with budget cuts hitting at the same time more people need help, state officials said Monday.

The AIDS Drug Assistance Program picks up the cost of life-saving anti-retroviral regimens and other drugs for low-income people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Without the drugs, the virus can multiply, making the person sick and potentially more contagious. As a result, denying people medicine worries public health officials.

"You don't want people who are currently on medications to lose that access," said Jacquelyn Clymore, head of the state's HIV/STD Prevention and Care branch.

Last year, state legislators allocated $11 million for AIDS drug assistance - about half of what had previously been budgeted, Clymore said.

At the same time, the state's unemployment rate has spiked upward, hitting a record 11.2 percent last month. For many, that means also losing job-sponsored health insurance to cover pricey HIV drugs.

About 4,400 people are using the drug assistance program, compared with 4,000 this time last year, Clymore said. As of Friday, no more people can be added, she said.

"The economic challenges are immense," Clymore said, adding that nine other states have frozen enrollment for their drug assistance programs. "This is by no means the only state having this experience."

North Carolina's program had long been the least generous in the nation, until state lawmakers loosened the eligibility criteria in 2006 and federal officials reworked the funding formula.

In 2008, the last full year for which data was available, more than 23,000 people in North Carolina were living with HIV or AIDS. or 919-829-4882

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