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How HHS Secretary Reconciles Proposed Medicaid Cuts, Stopping The Spread Of HIV

HHS Secretary Alex Azar at a White House roundtable discussion of health care prices in January. Azar tells NPR his office is now in "active negotiations and discussion" with drugmakers on how to make HIV prevention medicines more available and "cost-effective."
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HHS Secretary Alex Azar at a White House roundtable discussion of health care prices in January. Azar tells NPR his office is now in "active negotiations and discussion" with drugmakers on how to make HIV prevention medicines more available and "cost-effective."

In his State of the Union address this year, President Trump announced an initiative "to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years."

The man who pitched the president on this idea is Alex Azar, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

"We have the data that tells us where we have to focus, we have the tools, we have the leadership — this is an historic opportunity," Azar told NPR's Ari Shapiro Monday. "I told the president about this, and he immediately grabbed onto this and saw the potential to alleviate suffering for hundreds of thousands of individuals in this country and is deeply passionate about making that happen."

Trump's push to end HIV in the U.S. has inspired a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism from public health officials and patient advocates. Enthusiasm, because the plan seems to be rooted in data and is led by officials who have strong credentials in regards to HIV/AIDS. Skepticism, because of the administration's history of rolling back protections for LGBTQ people, many of whom the program will need to reach to be successful.

For instance, transgender people are three times more likely to contract HIV than the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trump has banned transgender people from serving in the military and undone rules that allow transgender students access to bathrooms that fit their gender presentation.

Azar himself has strong Republican credentials — as a young man, he clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia. And yet he's now touring the country promoting this plan to end HIV, which includes supporting needle exchange programs to reduce HIV infection among intravenous drug users.

"Syringe services programs aren't necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a Republican health secretary," Azar acknowledged at an HIV conference last month. "But we're in a battle between sickness and health — between life and death."

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This morning you toured facilities in East Boston, a neighborhood in one of 48 counties targeted in Trump's plan. What did you learn there?

I was able to be at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center and they have a remarkable program called Project Shine. What I was able to do is meet with the entire team that provides this type of holistic approach. It is very much what we're going to try to do in the most impacted areas.

You find the individuals who may have HIV — get them diagnosed. Get those who are diagnosed on the HIV antiretroviral treatment — so that they have an undetectable viral load and can't spread the disease to others, as well as live a long healthy life themselves. Get those who are most at risk of contracting HIV on a medicine called PrEP so that they dramatically reduce their chance of getting HIV. And then, finally, respond when you have clusters of outbreaks. So, just getting to see the the holistic approach there was extremely helpful for me.

Given that Medicaid is the single largest payer for medical care for people with HIV, do Republican efforts to block Medicaid expansion in high-infection states like Mississippi and Alabama undermine your efforts to get more people treatment?

The program that we have is based on the assumption that Medicaid remains as it is. .... And even were we to change Medicaid, along the lines of what the president has proposed in the budget ...

Meaning the major reductions to Medicaid that are in the president's budget?

Well, there are there are some reductions. But what it would do is actually give states tremendous flexibility. One of the challenges in the Affordable Care Act was that it prejudiced the Medicaid system very much in favor of able-bodied adults, away from the more traditional Medicaid populations of the aged, the disabled, pregnant women and children.

What we would do is restore a lot of flexibility of the states so that they could put those resources really where they're needed. We would expect that those suffering from HIV/AIDS infection would be in the core demographic of people that you would want to make sure were covered. What we will do here, by stopping the epidemic of HIV, is have a dramatic reduction in cost for the Medicaid and Medicare programs in the future.

So one big part of your plan is expanding access to PrEP, the HIV prevention drug. Without insurance it can cost around $1,600 a month in the U.S. A generic version available overseas costs roughly $6 a month. AIDS activists say your department could 'march in' and break the patent that Gilead holds in order to make a generic version available to Americans. Is your agency going to pursue that?

I don't know what you're saying by breaking the patent. There's no such thing as a legal right to break patents in the United States ...

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has a patent for PrEP, which Gilead disputes ...

Well, that's very different than breaking a patent. That would be asserting patent rights held by the CDC. So the CDC has a patent on the product and Gilead has a patent on the product. We are actually in active negotiations and discussion with Gilead right now on how we can make PrEP more available and more cost effective for individuals as part of this ending the HIV epidemic program.

I recently went to Jackson, Miss., which has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the country. I talked toShawn Esco, a black gay man, who told me that stigma, homophobia, and racism prevent people from seeking care, and he has very little hope. What would you say to him?

That is exactly what the president and I want to solve. I want to give him that hope. So many of the infections are happening in areas of our country where there's intense stigma against individuals — males who have sex with men; the African-American community, Latino community, American Indian, Alaska Native communities. What's really made this is a historic opportunity right now is we have data that show us that 50 percent of new infections are happening in 48 counties as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and so we can focus those efforts.

We want to learn from people on the ground, as I did this morning here in East Boston. How do we reduce stigma? How do we provide a holistic approach for Shawn and others? We can get them diagnosed and get them on treatment in ways that they find acceptable — or, as one of the individuals said to me this morning, meet people where they are.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.
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