Health program offers free HIV prevention drug to uninsured

Politics
Alex Azar

FILE – In this July 16, 2019, file photo, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar pauses while speaking during a Cabinet meeting at the White House, in Washington. The government opened a new program Tuesday to provide an HIV prevention drug for free to people who need the protection but have no insurance to pay for it. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government launched a new program on Tuesday to provide an HIV prevention drug for free to people who need the protection but have no insurance to pay for it.

Taking certain anti-HIV drugs every day dramatically reduces the chances that someone who is still healthy becomes infected through sex or injection drug use. But only about 18% of the 1.2 million Americans who might benefit got a prescription last year, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said. And for those without insurance, the drugs can cost up to $2,000 a month.

Expanding access to what’s called PrEP — for pre-exposure prophylaxis — is one key to the Trump administration’s ambitious goal of ending the nation’s HIV epidemic by 2030.

“We have the tools to stop the spread of HIV in its tracks. It’s about execution,” Azar told The Associated Press.

The HHS program is for the uninsured to seek free PrEP doses. Drugmaker Gilead Sciences Inc. has agreed to donate enough of its HIV prevention medicines for up to 200,000 people a year over 10 years.

To qualify, people must have a valid prescription and a negative HIV test and must lack prescription drug coverage. They can apply through a new website, GetYourPrEP.com. Once approved, they’ll be provided a card with a number necessary for their pharmacy to fill the prescription at no cost, officials said.

The uninsured aren’t the only the concern. Even though most insurers cover PrEP, co-pays still can be obstacles, especially for people with high-deductible plans.

Gilead, based in Foster City, California, sells the only two brands of PrEP, Truvada and Descovy, approved in the U.S. A cheaper generic version of Truvada is expected next fall.

Getting doctors to ask their patients about HIV risk factors and educating the public about PrEP also are hurdles. PrEP use has increased since 2016, when just 9% of those qualified got a prescription for HIV prevention, said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The increase is a good sign, but “progress is not fast enough,” Mermin said.

There are about 38,000 new HIV infections in the U.S. each year. President Donald Trump’s administration aims to reduce those by 75% in five years and by 90% in 10 years.

Azar said the Gilead donation, first announced in May, wasn’t affected by a patent-infringement lawsuit HHS recently filed against the company, arguing taxpayer-funded research helped lead to the recognition that certain drugs initially used to treat HIV also could prevent it.

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AP Medical Writer Mike Stobbe in New York contributed to this report.

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