ATLANTA -- More than half of Georgians with HIV are not currently in treatment, health officials say, but a Senate bill aims to bring thousands more of these patients into care.
If enacted, SB 342 would allow the state’s Department of Public Health to alert a physician of a patient’s HIV or AIDS status.
Treatments now available can help keep an infection from developing into AIDS, or can help prolong the lives of people who have already developed AIDS.
Under the bill, when someone with HIV arrives for care at a facility, and their medical data show that the individual has not had a regular blood test, Public Health would send a message to the patient’s health care provider about that out-of-care status.
The doctor would then encourage the patient to return to treatment, which includes taking a combination of prescription drugs to suppress their viral load. Antiretroviral therapy doesn’t cure HIV, but stops it from reproducing itself and spreading.
Georgia has a high HIV rate, especially in the metro Atlanta area. “Less than 40 percent in Georgia are virally suppressed,’’ Dr. Patrick O’Neal, director of health protection at Public Health, told GHN recently.
SB 342, sponsored by Sen. Dean Burke (R-Bainbridge), was approved unanimously by the Senate, and now is up for consideration in the House. O’Neal said it would allow the state to set up a pilot program, which is federally funded, at Grady Health System, Fulton County Department of Health & Wellness, and Mercy Care, a clinic for the uninsured in Atlanta.
The state’s program would be patterned after a similar one in Louisiana.
A Louisiana official said that as of Feb. 7, there were 1,322 individuals living with HIV identified through a program (called LaPHIE) who had not received medical care in 12 months or greater.
As a result of LaPHIE, from 2009 to 2012, 69 percent of people identified as out of care were linked to care within 90 days and 81 percent were linked to care within 12 months, said Dr. DeAnn Gruber, administrative director of the Louisiana Office of Public Health STD/HIV program.
HIV patients in treatment typically would have their viral load tested twice in 14 months.
Patients taking the drug therapy not only see their health improve, and also are much less likely to transmit the disease.
O’Neal said people drop out of HIV treatment for many reasons, including stigma surrounding the disease, mental health or substance abuse problems, and poverty.
Advocates for patients are backing the effort to get people into treatment.
Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality said advocates and providers have been involved in the process of the bill’s creation.
“We received input from the people most directly impacted by the change in law,’’ Graham said. “We support the language as long as there are no changes.’’
O’Neal said Public Health’s goal is to take the program statewide.
He said people who are uninsured can enter the ADAP program, which is a government drug assistance program for HIV-infected people.