Low-income Texans living with HIV are looking to state lawmakers for more support, after a budget shortfall that threatened to leave thousands in danger of losing life-saving medication.
The Texas HIV Medication Program, which helps people access HIV prescriptions and health appointments, barely avoided a waitlist before state lawmakers approved $36 million to keep it afloat for two more years.
Now the legislature will have to look at funding the program again in the 2023 session, which runs through the end of May.
"It is our number one concern," said Januari Fox with Prism Health North Texas. "Since we haven't expanded Medicaid in Texas, this program is really a lifeline for people living with HIV."
Prism Health, along with the Positive Women's Network Texas Strike Force, headed to Austin Monday to sponsor HIV Advocacy Day, where they planned to meet with lawmakers and push for more funding for the program.
There were close to 100,000 people living with HIV in Texas in 2019, according to the the latest available from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The department estimates a little more than 23,000 Texans will use the HIV Medication Program in 2024.
Fox said she's hoping the program expands treatment options to include injectable HIV medication, which was approved by the FDA in 2021. That treatment allows people living with HIV to visit the doctor every two months for the injection instead of taking a daily pill.
She also wants the program to allow people to re-enroll every year, instead of every six months.
2023 Texas bills impacting people living with HIV
The legislature is also weighing bills Fox and others say would have a big impact on people living with HIV. House Bill 1403 would set up a pilot program for needle exchanges in Dallas and six other counties. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, programs like this help slow down transmission of HIV and hepatitis B, and lead to "better substance use outcomes for people who inject drugs."
"We're actually getting to play offense this time as opposed to defense," Fox said. "We have some really good bills that will make the fight against HIV easier if they pass."
HB 2986 would remove HIV as use of a deadly weapon in assault cases. In 2008, a person with HIV spit at a police officer, and was sentenced to 35 years in prison for "deadly weapon firing," according to a New York Times article. HB 2235 would also make HIV testing a routine part of medical screenings.
"Texas has a powerful history of advocacy and HIV advocates," said Crystal Townsend with PWN Texas Strike Force. "They have been known to get things done, and really speak up."
Townsend said when PWN Texas Strike Force started in 2019, there were 20 people, and now the group has over 200 people across the state of Texas advocating for HIV policy.
"There are so many people who are our people—people who are living with HIV in Texas," she said. "We show up for you, we stand beside you, and we will fight for you even when you are not able to be there physically."
Roxie Glapion, also with PWN Texas Strike Force, has attended these HIV Advocacy Days for the past four years. She said it's important to come together.
"We need to be sitting at these tables, as we are the experts in this field," Glapion said. "If we're not sitting at the table, and we're allowing other people to make these decisions for us, how is that helpful and healthy for us?"
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