Paying For The Recession: The AIDS Drug Assistance Program

Despite the attempts at sunny forecasts being made by commentators, it’s pretty clear that we are in a recession, that we have not hit bottom, and that things are not going to get better soon. In the United States, all of the indicators are pointing firmly toward ‘shit is bad, folks.’ The unemployment rate1 is high, housing starts are low, housing sales are soft, and I’m sure pretty much all of our readers in the US can point to economic indicators in their own communities; empty businesses, cuts to local services, and so forth. Outside of the US, things aren’t looking too rosy either.

The thing about recessions is that they tend to disproportionately impact the people who are least equipped to deal with them. People living in poverty and people who are vulnerable to poverty are the most likely to suffer and the government kicks those people while they are down by cutting social services rampantly. These ‘austerity measures’ are touted as a necessity, which I personally find hard to swallow when we are handing out billions of dollars to corporations, but personal repugnance aside, they just plain don’t make sense. Cutting social services results in more costs later. If the issue is expenses, the most cost effective thing to do is to actually boost funding to social services right now.

In recent days, the United States media has been exploding with stories on the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP). On average, it costs around $12,000 every year for a patient to take AIDS medications, and remember, that’s an average. Some patients pay far more, and this is just medications, setting aside the costs of regular doctor visits, lab testing, and other services needed by people with HIV/AIDS. Founded in 1987, ADAP serves around 170,000 people every year who need HIV/AIDS medications and can’t afford them.

This program is often touted as successful because it has a lot of enrollees, although there are undoubtedly people who need assistance and can’t get it because they don’t qualify. As always, when I look at programs like ADAP, I am glad that they exist because I think it’s better to provide some support than nothing at all, but I also find them highly inefficient; the approach to health care access in the United States really sucks, quite frankly, and one of the reasons it sucks is that it’s very wasteful and poorly organised. If the United States would see fit to implement any sort of nationalised health care, we could spend less money and provide care for all instead of having a bunch of stopgap programs like ADAP. It should be possible to provide access to everyone in this country who needs it, and the fact that this hasn’t been made a priority reflects very poorly on us.

But I digress.

As of today, 11 states have implemented waiting lists for their ADAP programs, because they have no choice, and many are also cutting benefits, kicking people out of ADAP because they cannot cover them. They are not getting enough money to provide assistance, at the same time that growing numbers of HIV/AIDS patients are becoming unemployed, just like the rest of society. So, even as the need is increasing, the funding is drying up.

I often encounter the attitude that HIV/AIDS are manageable, not deadly, ‘like in the old days.’ All you have to do is take some pills, and, yes, you have to do it for life, but at least HIV/AIDS isn’t a death sentence. Er, no. Don’t get me wrong. It is great that treatments for HIV/AIDS are improving and that more medications are available and that more patients are living longer, but we should not forget that there is some serious class privilege behind who gets the most advanced treatments and who does not.

Something a lot of people don’t seem to realise is that these medications are expensive and that not all people can afford them, and those who can cannot necessarily access them regularly. ‘Compliance’ with a drug regimen is a critical part of HIV/AIDS treatment, and when you have people on ADAP going off their medications, it’s not like they can just pay out of pocket until funding comes through again:

First, there was a monthlong wait to see a doctor. By that time, he says, “I had been without my medication for a month and a half, which is bad for a person [with] HIV.”

During that time, the virus started coming back, but he had to get in line behind 18 people who were on Montana’s list. He has slowly — month by month — been working his way to the top of it, even as it continues to grow.

This patient got lucky, comparatively. People kicked in to help and he got back on his medications, with help from a case manager who helped him apply directly to the drug assistance programs offered by most pharmaceutical companies. There are a lot of people relying on ADAP who don’t have this support network, may not be aware of drug assistance programs, have trouble seeing a social worker who could connect them with resources they could use to get their medications. Meanwhile, their viral loads climb while they wait for medication.

Here in California, where the disability rights movement and HIV/AIDS advocacy movement are strong and vocal, our ADAP program is fairly stable. We’ve identified it as a priority that we need to keep funding and we have specifically addressed the fact that patients should not be put on waiting lists, that it’s important to keep patients on their medications and to avoid denying aid to those who need it. Except prisoners, of course; California is cutting ADAP funding for prisoners. As I mentioned in my post on mentally ill youth in US prisons, prisoners are already routinely denied access to the medications they do have. I don’t think we need to go around making it even more difficult for prisoners to receive medical care, do we?

Elsewhere? ADAP is a mess, people are scrambling to prevent people from falling through the cracks, and an already inefficient model for delivering access to health services is getting increasingly more inefficient. Social workers are trying to help the individuals they come into contact with, which is great, but unfortunately it means that the forest is being neglected for the trees, and when you’re spending all your time helping individuals navigate the system so that they can get help, it’s hard to work on designing and implementing more effective policy. Meanwhile, other people have no help at all, and while helping some is better than none, I would rather that we reframe our approach and get services to all.

It’s good to see the media drawing attention to this issue, because I think that people need to digest information about how austerities work in small chunks. The media can’t just say ‘hey y’all, we have a really big problem with kicking poor folks while they’re down’ because it’s too big and people tune out. By profiling individual issues and humanising the results of financial cuts, the media can, perhaps, evoke some awareness and compassion, and get more people questioning austerities and getting angry about them. It’s harder to justify sweeping funding cuts when you have seen the faces of the people those cuts will hurt.

Is that enough, though? A lot of people have spoken out very strongly against austerities, and so far it seems like the government is ignoring the will of the people along with the suggestions of some economists and charging forward with cuts to social services. I think that this is a grave mistake, and it’s also a fatal one for a lot of people in the United States.

I can live through the recession because I have a safety net. But that’s not enough. I want everyone else to live through it too.

  1. Notoriously unreliable because it does not include people who have stopped looking for work.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post. That last paragraph is like a punch to the gut.

  2. Do you think ADAP may be targeted/under-funded/ignored* because of the stigmas surrounding HIV/AIDS that still exist? (Only bad people get it, for example.)

    And will the recession be an excuse to keep our healthcare system the way it is, to slow things down. (The political ads here say “X (republican) will stop ‘Obama Care'”)

    *This is the first I’ve ever heard of it, which is incredibly sad. It is an amazing program.