On World AIDS Day, let’s remember disease is still a brutal killer


Today, Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, we all wear red ribbons to show our support and unity with the 36.7 million individuals who are living with HIV/AIDS — a disease responsible for taking the lives of approximately 2,000 Floridians alone, according to the Center for AIDS Research at Emory University.

These numbers put in stark relief the challenge that we face as a county, state and country to overcome this disease.

While raising awareness about prevention can minimize its continual spread, we must also be committed to helping those who live with this disease and its symptoms, many of whom are underprivileged. The American Psychological Association has identified a direct link between HIV/AIDS and socioeconomic status; it is proven to have a disproportionate rate of contraction in individuals who live in impoverished neighborhoods.

In particular, rural residents have a challenge fighting this disease due to the lack of health care facilities with HIV/AIDS practices, the often long distances they must travel to find care, and limitations on educational resources. These unique challenges point to one solution: we must ensure that these vulnerable populations have accessibility to necessary medications and health services. This can be difficult for those who have HIV/AIDS because therapy cost is approximately $25,000 per year, per person. This outrageous expense is unfair, especially since low-income individuals have a much higher chance of contracting this debilitating disease.

As a public servant, it is always my commitment to the community I serve to provide them with the necessary medical resources. Unfortunately, this can be an uphill battle sometimes when good programs designed to alleviate the cost of care go sideways. An example of this is the 340B drug discount program which was first created by Congress in 1992. Its intent was to assist health care safety net providers in reducing prescription drug costs.

To achieve this, it requires drug manufacturers to offer certain clinics and hospitals steep discounts for prescription medicines. The objective was to bridge the gap of accessibility for uninsured and vulnerable populations and empower them to seek the medical attention they need. However, 340B has fallen victim to entities utilizing this program as a profit scheme.

Studies show that 80 percent of sales associated with 340B are represented by hospitals that are rapidly expanding and creating agreements with for-profit pharmacies at an aggressive pace. Between 2010-2014, the number of unique pharmacies serving as 340B “contract pharmacies” increased by 154 percent. Yet, there is no record of any reinvestment in charity care for their respective communities.

Right now, Congress has a fighting chance to make this right by bringing this program back to its intended purpose and restructuring these contracts to include detail of the kind of accountability that is expected in terms of their charity care. It is time to craft sound policy changes that will close loopholes and get the program back to its original intent. These fixes would be more effective than trying to craft a new national program that attempts to tackle drug pricing.

Ultimately, my deepest concern is that we have many individuals who are not realizing the benefits or the cost savings of these programs.

Everyone, especially the most vulnerable, should have access to affordable drugs to keep HIV/AIDS at bay and maintain the health of the community from this terrible disease.

René Garcia represents District 36 in Miami in the Florida Senate.