Bad prescription

North Carolina shortchanges people with HIV/AIDS.

By Chris Fitzsimon

[05.25.04] — Our priorities in North Carolina are way out of whack.

Consider the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, created by Congress in 1995 to help pay for drugs for people living with HIV/AIDS who cannot afford them.

The federal government and states pay for the program, with each state setting the maximum income someone can earn and still receive help paying for the medicine.

Most states let people receive assistance if they earn as much as three to four times the federal poverty standard.

But to receive assistance in North Carolina, which has set the most restrictive eligibility standard in the U.S., a person can earn no more than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, or $11,637 a year for a single person.

Yet the AIDS drugs, which were developed in recent years and often can save lives, cost a whopping $12,000 to $15,000 a year.

If you are a single person living with HIV/AIDS, and you work at a job that does not have health insurance, the drugs you need to stay alive cost more than you can make in a year and still qualify for the program.

At the eligibility level set by state lawmakers, a person living with HIV/AIDS could spend every dollar he or she earned in a year to buy the drugs, and still not afford them or be eligible for state assistance.

South Carolina, in comparison, helps people who make up to 300 percent of the poverty level, as do Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee, while Delaware, Rhode Island and Maryland cover people who make up to 400 percent of the poverty level.

No other state has an eligibility standard below 200 percent of poverty, and only a few are that low.

And unlike most states, North Carolina has capped enrollment in the assistance program, so even if people meet the income restrictions, they still may not get help if the money appropriated that year runs out.

And the money has run out for several years while the number of new HIV/AIDS cases has grown, including 1,000 new cases in 2002.

Gov. Mike Easley has recommended that state lawmakers this year spend enough money to provide help to everyone who meets the current eligibility level.

There has been no talk of changing the eligibility standard to let more people get the medicine they need to stay healthy and continue working, not to mention paying taxes.

Instead, state policy likely will continue to make it impossible for people to get help until they show up in emergency rooms or grow too sick to keep working.

Our elected officials ought to ashamed.

And they ought to fix this outrageous policy this year, tight budget or not.

Chris Fitzsimon is director of NC Policy Watch, a program of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal.

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