AIDS Action Day calls for increased health care

The HIV Prevention and Health Care Access bill will be introduced this week.

Eight years ago, Minneapolis resident Bill Johnson’s immune system crashed, nearly killing him.

“My doctor looked at me one day and said, ‘Get ready,’ ” Johnson said.

Johnson, 44, developed full-blown AIDS in 1995, the year a new generation of HIV/AIDS medication became available.

Luckily for Johnson, the medication worked and his health improved steadily but not without an expensive price tag. The cost of Johnson’s HIV/AIDS medication exceeded $3,000 a month, and two-thirds of his monthly paycheck went toward medical expenses.

On Tuesday, Johnson joined approximately 100 other residents at the State Capitol for AIDS Action Day. The lobby day, organized by the Minnesota AIDS Project, gave them a chance to discuss with legislators a bill that could ease the costs of prescription medication for low-income HIV/AIDS patients.

The HIV Prevention and Health Care Access bill will be introduced this week in the Legislature.

“Nobody deserves to go through that hell of deciding if they can afford to (pay rent) and eat food or die because they cannot afford their meds,” Johnson said.

Problems such as Johnson’s encouraged Sen. John Hottinger, DFL-St. Peter, to co-author the bill, the senator said.

“With HIV, the loss of health care can be a death sentence,” Hottinger said. “It’s an issue of social justice.”

Hundreds of Minnesotans with HIV/AIDS are in danger of losing their medication because of their inability to afford state-mandated co-pays, said Amy Weiss, communications director for the Minnesota AIDS Project.

“If people miss even one dose of their medication, there are consequences,” Weiss said. “Their bodies begin to build resistance to their medication.”

Bob Tracy, director of development for the project, said patients who cannot currently afford their co-pays would be removed from the existing medical-assistance program altogether.

Providing access to drug treatments and health care for people living with HIV/AIDS allows patients to live longer, he said.

“Not only do (patients) live longer, but you also reduce the amount of viral activity in their bodies, so they become less infectious,” Tracy said.

He added that once HIV/AIDS treatment is started, it must continue uninterrupted to avoid creating a new public-health problem with a drug-resistant strain of HIV.

Elizabeth Dickinson, manager of community affairs for the Minnesota AIDS Project, said she agrees with Hottinger.

“No one living with any kind of medical condition should be discouraged from seeking treatment because of inability to pay,” Dickinson said. “Health-care access is a basic human right.”

Dave Dorman, a Boynton Health Service educator, said he agrees state HIV policy should focus on access to health care and prevention of new infections, both of which are addressed by the current bill.

“This bill makes sense from a public-health point of view,” Dorman said.

But Rep. Ron Abrams, R-Minnetonka, said he is worried about the bill’s $12.4 million price tag, considering difficulties in balancing the state budget.

“I’m just concerned about the cost,” he said.

– Freelance editor Lou Raguse welcomes comments at [email protected]