Lowry travels to Washington D.C. to explore funding options for HIV/AIDS drug program

OLYMPIA -- A meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala is on Gov. Mike Lowry's agenda early next week when the governor will visit Washington, D.C. in search of funding options for the state's HIV/AIDS drug program.

The governor will leave Olympia Sunday night for a brief trip that also will include speaking at a congressional educational forum on the funding crisis facing states' AIDS drug assistance programs.

The forum, titled "The crisis in access to new AIDS treatments," will be held Monday (Sept. 9) at the United States Capitol Building, Room SC 5, from noon to 2 p.m. (EDT). Lowry's remarks will begin at about 12:45 p.m. The congressional forum is sponsored jointly by the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) working group and National Organizations Responding to AIDS (NORA), and is aimed at helping states share information on funding issues and options.

According to the ADAP working group, 20 state programs faced budget shortfalls last year in an effort to provide stronger, more effective anti-HIV medications to increasing numbers of people. Washington's HIV/AIDS prescription drug program (APDP) currently has a $3.4 million projected budget shortfall that is expected to grow to $5 million by next year.

Lowry said his commitment to finding long-term funding solutions for Washington's program was prompted by two factors: a budget shortfall that was severe enough to temporarily halt enrollment in the program in July, and the remarkable success of a group of powerful yet costly anti-HIV drugs called protease inhibitors that are available through the program.

The state's APDP program, which pays for medications for low-income people living with HIV, was closed to new enrollees July 17 due to the high cost of the newly approved medications. Using funds allocated to the state Department of Health, Lowry reopened the program in August but vowed to find long-term funding solutions that involve not only state government, but the federal government, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and the private sector.

"There is no doubt in my mind that some of these powerful new drugs are saving lives," Lowry said. "I have heard countless stories from people who say they're feeling strong, healthy and optimistic for the first time in months because of our program and they have the medical tests to back up their claims. These drugs are clearly an investment in peoples' lives and in their health."

The challenge, he said, is to not only bring people into the program who can derive the greatest benefit from the available drugs, but to make sure that people who are enrolled in the program aren't forced out every time state funding is threatened.

"That's why an assurance of continued funding is as critical to this program as are the dollars we come up with today," Lowry said. "Some of these drugs not only help people live healthier lives, they are a cost-effective investment that help people lead more productive lives and avoid more costly treatments later on."

The governor said his meeting with Shalala scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday will provide an opportunity to discuss long-term funding solutions. Lowry said he would ask the secretary to consider increasing the Department of Health and Human Services' request for ADAP funds for fiscal year 1997.

In addition, the governor said he would ask Shalala to consider convening a summit of federal officials, governors, mayors, pharmaceutical companies and insurers to find long-term funding solutions.

In July, Lowry was one of nine governors who wrote to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) requesting additional federal funding for the states' AIDS Drug Assistance Programs. Specter serves as chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Washington state Department of Health closed enrollment in the APDP program in July after enrollment increased from 475 in January to 835 that month. Program costs have climbed from an average of $53,000 per month in 1995 to $143,803 in July. While the department anticipated that program costs would increase, the magnitude of the increase in enrollment and claims costs far exceeded projections.

Lowry partially reopened the state APDP program July 30, providing emergency funding to pay for standard medications. He ordered full restoration of the program including access to powerful anti-HIV protease inhibitors on August 14.

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For more information, contact the Governor's Communications Office, (360)753-6790.