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N.J. residents with AIDS remain eligible for ADAP program that pays for medication, Gov. Christie says
  Published: Thursday, July 29, 2010, 1:43 PM
Three days before state budget cuts would have eliminated nearly 960 patients with HIV and AID from a program that paid for their costly array of prescriptions, Gov. Chris Christie announced today he has found outside funds to cover their medications.
The announcement also sparked a political spat between the Republican governor and Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) over how the solution was reached.
Christie's budget took $7.9 million away from the AIDS Drug Distribution Program by shrinking the maximum income eligibility guidelines from $54,150 to $32,490. That move eliminates about 960 people beginning Aug. 1.
But to prevent that from happening, the administration created a new benefits program for patients who stood to lose called the Temporary AIDS Supplemental Rebate and Federal Assistance Program. The funding will come from $5 million in additional rebates from pharmaceutical companies, recently negotiated on behalf of many states by the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, said Health and Senior Services Commissioner Dr. Poonam Alaigh.
The remaining $2.9 million would be covered by a new federal grant program announced earlier this month, Alaigh said.
The transfer to the new program "will be virtually seamless," Alaigh said. "This is another example of Gov. Chris Christie's commitment to help New Jersey's most vulnerable."
Alaigh said her office planned to mail out letters alerting the 957 people about the new program. Three weeks ago, they received letters explaining they were losing benefits.
"This is welcome news for those 957 clients and we applaud the Governor's actions," said Kathy Ahearn-O'Brien, executive director of the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation. "We are pleased that the immediate crisis has been resolved."
"Life-saving medications should not be seen as a negotiable budget line item," she added. Ahearn-O'Brien said it remained unclear whether drugs addressing side effects like wasting syndrome would be covered under the new program.
While describing the program at an unrelated press conference in Morristown, Christie criticized Vitale, vice-chair of the Senate health committee, for publicizing a letter the senator wrote Wednesday asking Christie to reverse the budget cut.
"I've been working on this for a while with the pharmaceutical industry," Christie said.
"And if Senator Vitale would have had the courtesy to pick up the phone and call, I would have been able to save the paper he wrote that letter on."
Vitale said his letter contained no malice, but only made suggestions on how to find the funding. He said the administration played "with people?s lives" by sending out the letters saying the patients would lose benefits three weeks. "We had the solutions weeks ago," Vitale said.
N.J. says AIDS patients won't lose coverage
By Adrienne Lu
Posted on Fri, Jul. 30, 2010
Inquirer Trenton Bureau
In a rare about-face, the Christie administration announced Thursday that it would help pay for AIDS medications for nearly 1,000 New Jersey residents who were expecting to lose their coverage through a state program Aug. 1.
Under Gov. Christie's first budget, the state tightened the income requirements for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program to save an estimated $7.4 million. The allowable income for assistance was cut from $54,150 annually to $32,490 for a single person with no children. At the same time, the state increased appropriations for the program from $9.8 million to $17.2 million in anticipation of increased enrollment and rising pharmaceutical costs.
On Thursday, the state announced that those who would have lost coverage will be enrolled immediately in a new program specifically for residents at higher income levels, between 300 and 500 percent of the federal poverty level. New enrollment for patients who fall in the income guidelines and meet other program requirements also will be permitted, said Donna Leusner, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Senior Services.
Health and Senior Services Commissioner Poonam Alaigh said the state learned recently that it would receive $5 million more in rebates from pharmaceutical companies than previously expected. That money, along with additional federal AIDS funds, will allow the department to enroll those whose coverage would have been dropped in a new program, Temporary AIDS Supplemental Rebate and Federal Relief Program.
"The department faced extremely difficult budget choices and worked continuously to explore every possible option to reverse this reduction and to maintain access," Alaigh said.
One lawmaker who has been working to restore coverage said it never should have been jeopardized because the state has known of the "new" funding for weeks.
Sen. Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex) said he had been trying to tell the Department of Health and Senior Services for weeks that additional moneys would be coming in and that a reduction in coverage would not be necessary.
"What's discouraging is that they don't pay attention," Vitale said. "The governor is nowhere on health care in this state. We're taking giant steps backward.
"I'm frustrated to hear that he creates a crisis and then he solves a crisis," he added.
Leusner said state officials did not learn until "several weeks after the budget was adopted" that New Jersey would receive sufficient funding in rebates to create the new program.
At an unrelated news conference Thursday, Christie accused Vitale of "playing politics" on the issue.
"I've been working on this for a while with the pharmaceutical industry," Christie said. "And if Sen. Vitale would have had the courtesy to pick up the phone and call, I would have been able to save the paper he wrote that letter on."
Advocates for HIV and AIDS patients welcomed the change of heart, although some also urged the state to make a firm commitment to covering the medications on a longer-term basis and also to cover the costs of non-AIDS medications.
David Condoluci, a physician who heads Garden State Infectious Disease Associates in Voorhees, said his staff had been scrambling for several weeks to try to help some of its 1,600 AIDS and HIV patients who expected to lose their coverage.
"This was the compromise that we were looking for to begin with, so nobody had to go without their HIV meds," Condoluci said. "That's what we were hoping for."
"This is welcome news for those 957 clients, and we applaud the governor's actions," said Kathy Ahearn-O'Brien, executive director of Hyacinth AIDS Foundation in New Brunswick. "However, serious questions still remain about the long-term viability of the program. Lifesaving mediations should not be seen as a negotiable budget line item."
Leusner said the state found the funds this year, but future coverage had not been determined because "the department's budget process is year to year."
AIDS and HIV medications can cost patients $22,000 a year without assistance; even with health insurance, patients can pay hundreds of dollars a month in co-payments.
In 2009, 7,645 residents, most without health insurance, were enrolled in the state AIDS Drug Assistance Program.
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