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posted Friday, June 11, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 24
Political cowardice threatens AIDS funding
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Political cowardice threatens AIDS funding

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

A federal program designed to help low-income people living with HIV/AIDS to pay for their medication is in jeopardy because members of Congress fear that voting for it could hurt their chances of reelection.

That charge was made by William Arnold, executive director of the National ADAP Working Group, to Washington Blade blogger Lou Chibbaro, Jr.

ADAP - the federal AIDS Drug Assistance Program - keeps tens of thousands of poor people alive by providing free or low-cost HIV medications.

ADAP was created in 1987 under the Ryan White Care Act to help pay for medication for low-income people with HIV/AIDS, including those who lack health insurance.

The program is credited with actually saving the federal government money, because it helps HIV/AIDS patients to control the disease and therefore keeps them from seeking treatment in emergency rooms subsidized by federal funds.

Arnold and other HIV/AIDS activists say ADAP is facing an unprecedented crisis this year.

In 11 states, ADAP programs have literally run out of money, and officials have been forced to introduce waiting lists for patients who otherwise would have received AIDS medication prescribed by their doctors.

At least 1,000 HIV/AIDS patients are currently on waiting lists in these states.

Arnold told Chibbaro that the Tea Party's demands that Congress drastically cut spending make it difficult to line up support for an emergency supplemental appropriation measure to fund ADAP.

Both Republican and Democratic supporters of ADAP are reluctant to vote for new spending, Arnold said, even if they know it is needed to help save lives.

On June 3, U.S. Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and 76 of their House colleagues released a petition to President Obama calling for $126 million in emergency funds for ADAP.

The petition says that the emergency supplemental funds are needed to reverse a growing trend among states to put uninsured ADAP patients on waiting lists to get their medications.

"It's abundantly clear that without emergency action, the ability for ADAP programs to provide a safety net for low-income and underinsured Americans with HIV/AIDS will be seriously damaged," says the petition.

"It's ridiculous that people have to be wait-listed for medicine that they need to stay alive," said Laurie Young, a policy analyst for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.

HIV/AIDS advocacy groups say an emergency appropriation of at least $126 million is needed this year to provide AIDS drugs for all that need them.

They add that the Obama administration and Democratic leaders in Congress have yet to make a commitment to back an emergency appropriations bill.

Baldwin said on June 8 that she and her colleagues who signed the petition have yet to hear back from the White House.

In an e-mail to the Blade, also dated June 8, White House spokesperson Shin Inouye said Pres. Obama "strongly supports the Ryan White Program and the AIDS Drug Assistance Program's vital role in providing life-saving medications for people living with HIV and AIDS."

Inouye noted that the 2010 funding for ADAP represents a $20 million increase over the fiscal year 2009 funding. He said President Obama has proposed an increase in ADAP funding for 2011 that will allow the program to "serve an additional 3,389 individuals."

But Inouye did not say whether the administration would support the $126 million emergency supplemental appropriation for ADAP for this year.

Asked for the White House position on the current emergency funding proposal, Inouye would say only, "We are working to ensure that ADAP has the funds it needs so that waiting lists are not needed for this safety net program."

Drew Hammill, a spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders were reviewing the request for emergency funding.

"As she has every single year since the program was created, the speaker will push for increased funding for ADAP in the regular [fiscal year] 2011 Labor-[Health & Human Services]-Education appropriations bill," he said.

HIV/AIDS activists, including Arnold, said a funding increase in the fiscal year 2011 appropriations bill would be helpful and could alleviate the ADAP crisis if the funding were large enough.

But they said that immediate relief is needed this year, noting that the regular 2011 funding would not be available until July 1, 2011.

Baldwin said she was certain that congressional Democrats would support the $126 million emergency appropriation. But she said Republicans in the House have followed a policy of opposing nearly all spending bills proposed by Democrats.

The president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Michael Weinstein, challenged Baldwin, saying that Democrats have not yet introduced a bill to provide the emergency $126 million funding for ADAP.

"Why don't they introduce a bill and call the Republicans' bluff if they want to blame this on the Republicans?" Weinstein said.

Meanwhile, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) introduced a bill in May to take $126 million for ADAP out of the federal stimulus program, where there are millions of dollars in unallocated funds.

Sens. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) and George LeMieux (R-Fla.) also signed onto the bill, but to date no Democrats have agreed to become co-sponsors.

Weinstein said Democratic sources in the Senate told him the bill would be "dead on arrival" when it is referred to committee.

"This is partisan politics, with the well-being of people with AIDS the ones to suffer the consequences," Weinstein said.

Weinstein challenged Speaker Pelosi to introduce immediately an emergency funding measure to cover the funds ADAP will need this year.

Pelosi's district in San Francisco has a large number of low-income people with HIV that rely on ADAP, Weinstein noted.

He acknowledged that no other Republican senator, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have signed on to the Burr-Coburn bill, however.

No companion bill has yet been introduced on the House side.

The new healthcare reform bill passed this year includes prescription drug plans that cover expensive anti-retroviral drugs that are used to control HIV/AIDS.

That system does not go into effect until 2014, however.

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