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Proposed Cuts To Life-Saving HIV Drug Program Due In Part To Software Glitch

An opened bottle of medication is held open.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Josh Mica displays his HIV treatment medication, Biktarvy, on March 21, 2021.

A glitch in pharmacy software that tracks medication inventory helped contribute to a budget deficit that could put thousands of Texans living with HIV at risk of losing life-saving drugs, program administrators told the public Wednesday.

Administrators for the Texas HIV Medication Program revealed the software issue at a town hall meeting to update the HIV community on the program's status and elicit feedback.

"It was a miscalculation and it led us to believe that we had more on the shelves than what we did," said Felipe Rocha, one of the administrators of the program. "So it meant that our budget figures were off."

As a result, Rocha said, people in charge of the program were unaware of the full scope of its drug expenses.

"We basically ended up with a $35 million error," Rocha said. "The software still has the glitch, it hasn’t been fixed in the system. Our IT colleagues are working on it and we’re trying to figure out what is happening."

The HIV Medication Program, which covers the cost of drugs that have significantly reduced the spread of HIV in Texas, currently helps more than 21,000 people statewide.

Houston Public Media previously reported that the state-run program is facing a budget deficit thanks in part to a rise in enrollment, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the software glitch was previously unrevealed, and came as a surprise to many in the HIV community, who heard the information for the first time Wednesday. Program administrators said they first discovered the problem in late August.

"If you guys knew about it — and I understand that maybe you didn’t know the ramifications of it at the time — but at least give us some kind of information that something like this is happening," said Frank Rosas, who benefits from the program. "Again, it goes back to transparency and accountability."

Rosas, who is also the vice-chair of the program's advisory committee, said that this is part of a greater trend of Texas' Department of State Health Services failing to include the community.

"(Transparency) has decreased steadily over the years," Rosas said. "We always used to get all kinds of budget and data reports that we would discuss at the meetings. Over the years, those reports were becoming less and less."

Administrators recently asked the Texas legislature for more than $100 million over the next two fiscal years, arguing that without the money to fill the gap they would be forced to limit eligibility in Texas.

The program is now doing manual checks and confirming its digital records on a monthly basis instead of annually. Officials said that this type of software issue has never happened before.

Program administrators said that, going forward, patients and advocates will be included in the conversation.

"We recognize the impact that programs changes will have on Texans living with HIV," said Dr. Manda Hall, a DSHS associate commissioner. "It is critical that we work together... and we invite all of you to be our thought partners in the process."