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HIV Drug Program Serving Thousands Of Low-Income Texans Will Avoid Waitlist — For Now

A man holds an open bottle of prescription medication.
Lucio Vasquez
/
Houston Public Media
Josh Mica displays his HIV treatment medication, Biktarvy, on March 21, 2021.

A state-run program that covers the cost of lifesaving HIV medication for thousands of low-income Texans will avoid a waitlist for at least two years, state health officials said Wednesday.

Administrators for the Texas HIV Medication Program considered the waitlist to help cut costs after facing a $100 million budget shortfall, putting thousands of Texans living with HIV at risk of losing access to the medication.

However, after state lawmakers approved $36 million for the program during this year’s legislative session, the idea was scrapped, according to Imelda Garcia, an associate commissioner of infectious disease services at DSHS. She said the incoming money will be used to purchase medication and to fund HIV prevention efforts.

“I’m happy to say that with the influx of the new general revenue dollars that the state legislature appropriated to the program, we were able to continue the HIV medication program as it is currently,” Garcia said during a virtual update to stakeholders. “And so with that, we will not be implementing a waitlist for (the program) at this time.”

Garcia did hint at the possibility of reconsidering the waitlist, depending on the status of the program after the next two years.

"While I’m really, really, really happy we don’t have to implement a waitlist, we still need to look at other things that we can do along the way to really maintain the financial stability of the program,” Garcia said.

DSHS officials also applied for federal funds to make up for the rest of the program’s budget gap, but Garcia did not say whether those requests had been approved.

The program continues to deal with the challenges that come with rising prescription costs and the potential continuation of growing enrollment across the state.

The move to avoid a waitlist comes at the cost of shrinking the program in other ways, according to program manager Rachel Sanor: The program will suspend drug assistance for medications that don’t directly treat HIV, including medications for the treatment of chronic conditions, HIV medication side effects and hepatitis B. Program participants who have been on those medications in the last six months will be notified of the change, she said.

These changes are happening as the program also deals with an eight-week backlog of applications, meaning many Texans living with HIV are currently waiting long periods of time for a response. Sanor said the situation might improve after more workers are hired.

"We do have a fairly small dedicated staff and we are working to do what we can to improve the processing," Sanor said. "But we do have staff working overtime now for the last several months."