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Will the HIV Drug Program Survive?

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“Unless lawmakers dig deep, Texas may pull back a lifeline that keeps about 15,000 people alive.”

That’s the lead of Bob Garrett’s story in Wednesday’s edition of The Dallas Morning News. It was the must-read story of the week that you may not have read. The piece didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved.

Garrett’s story chronicles the money shortages in the state’s HIV Medication Program. Funded with federal and state money, the program gives anti-retroviral drugs to Texans afflicted with HIV and AIDS who otherwise couldn’t afford the expensive medications.

The drugs have proven remarkably effective. They have turned a terminal illness into a chronic one. In short, the program supplies about 15,000 people the medications that are keeping them alive.

But, as Garrett reports, the program is running out of money. And with a budget-cutting legislative session looming, the program may have to severely curtail services—if it survives at all.

Part of the problem is increased demand:

“Enrollment has surged to record levels because the recession stripped people of jobs and private health coverage, the state screens more people for HIV, and the drugs are highly successful at prolonging lives, said program manager Dwayne Haught of the Department of State Health Services.”

State Lawmakers will need to increase funding for the HIV drug program for it to continue current services. With the state facing a budget gap estimated at $18-$21 billion, a funding boost seems like a long-shot.

But then again, 15,000 lives are at stake.

Just to give you an idea of scale, here are some Texas towns with populations of about 15,000: Brenham, Belton, Forney Uvalde, Mount Pleasant, Sulphur Springs and Pampa.

While the program is costly—these drugs aren’t cheap—it actually saves taxpayers money in the long run: “the AIDS drugs, though expensive, forestall more costly inpatient hospital stays and crisis treatments for HIV patients, health care providers, advocates and some lawmakers said,” Garrett writes.

This program was on the chopping block back in 2003 too—the last time the state faced a budget crisis. It survived thanks to the dedicated work of several advocates, including Eduardo Sanchez, who then headed the Department of Health.

Seven years ago, state legislators found a way to fund this program even in a tight budget year. There are 15,000 people who hope lawmakers do it again.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.