The HIV/AIDS clinic at Georgia Health Sciences University is getting a $3 million renewal, money that will become even more critical as the waiting list for help with AIDS drugs in Georgia becomes the longest in the country.
The university received a federal $3.4 million renewal for three years to serve the 13 counties surrounding Augusta in Georgia, and Aiken and Edgefield counties in South Carolina.
The clinic has received funding since 1995 through the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act to enable it to treat 1,300 patients and do outreach such as rapid HIV testing.
The funding is even more critical because Georgia and South Carolina limit the number of patients who can receive help through the state AIDS Drug Assistance Program.
Of the 4,774 patients nationwide who are on a waiting list to receive financial help from the states, 1,320 of them are in Georgia, the largest waiting list of any state, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Another 224 are on South Carolina’s waiting list.
The lack of funding hasn’t hurt patient care at a large clinic like the one at GHSU, said Dr. J. Peter Rissing, chief of infectious diseases and professor of medicine at GHSU.
“It means that we have more hoops to jump through and the folks that assist us in that are doing more solicitation from pharmaceutical (companies),” he said. The ones likely hurt by it are patients who are being seen at smaller providers that might have only a few HIV patients and lack the staff to do the contacts and paperwork, Rissing said.
“If they didn’t have a program above them, no, they would not be able to get their medication” which can cost several thousand dollars a year, he said.
In spite of the financial limitations and expense, the medications have enabled the GHSU clinic to make remarkable progress with the patients it treats. In more than 60 percent of them, the level of virus is so low that it is undectectable, an “excellent” outcome that means not only are they less likely to get other infections but they are much less likely to be able to transmit the virus to another, according to recent studies, Rissing said.
“Indeed, it is so dramatic that the feds are now pushing treatment as prevention” for new infections, he said. But first, the patients must know they are infected, and that has been the problem.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 50 percent of all new infections are spread from the 20 percent of those who are HIV-positive but don’t know it. The Ryan White grant also allows the clinic to do rapid HIV testing out in the community, as David Thompson was doing recently at a Walgreens in south Augusta. The drugstore has encouraged the clinic to do testing at its sites around Augusta, which has really helped, said Thompson, a community outreach specialist.
“It’s getting us into neighborhoods we weren’t having much luck getting into before,” he said. As he prepared to give a test, he tells the woman that the hope is for a negative outcome but even if it is positive, he can help get that person confirmation and then see a physician.
“As long as you do what that doctor tells you to do, you’ll be just fine,” Thompson said.