LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – Access to an HIV prevention drug, along with several other preventative services, is on the line for thousands of Clark County patients after a Texas judge ruled forcing insurers to cover the cost is unlawful.
PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a once-a-day pill that the CDC says dramatically reduces the risk of getting HIV. When taken as prescribed, it’s 99% effective against sexual transmission and at least 74% effective against transmission via drug injection.
33-year-old Akeem Rollins began taking the pill in his 20s. He says he found his queer community at just 15 years old and began exploring afterward.
“What kind of sex do I like? What kind of sex don’t I like? What do I want to do? What am I comfortable with? What am I uncomfortable with?” Rollins said while discussing his exploration.
Then, during a routine visit with his doctor, she recommended a new medication to him.
“She’s like, ‘Well, why aren’t you on PrEP?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t really know that much about it,’” Rollins said. “When I engage sexually with another person, there’s something not here anymore. That thing that left was anxiety or fear, (which) was always there afterward.”
The most recent data shows 4,356 PrEP users resided in Clark County in 2021, according to the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD).
Additionally, the district says new HIV diagnoses are rising amongst all genders after a sharp dip during the pandemic.
Currently, the Affordable Care Act requires most insurance plans to cover the prescription, along with other preventive services not related to HIV, like certain cancer screenings.
In March, U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor struck down the corresponding revision in the act. The Texas judge argued that the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force made up of scientists and medical professionals, was not appointed by the Senate and, therefore, infringes on the Constitution’s appointment clause and is unlawful.
Emily Schreiber, Senior Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs for the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, indicates the ruling goes beyond access to HIV prevention.
“It means that if you were going in for your mammogram, you would suddenly have to pay for that instead. If you want your HIV (or) STI screening, you’d need to pay for that instead of being able to get that for free. That reduces access for people,” Schreiber said inside the Cosmopolitan Hotel Wednesday morning. “We’re at a place where we can end the HIV epidemic, but this is going to stop that progress.”
She acknowledges that the Biden administration is currently appealing the decision, which maintains the same access to these services, including PrEP, for the time being.
Terrell Parker, National Minority AIDS Council Program Manager, joined her and over 1,300 other people at the Biomedical HIV Prevention Summit at the Cosmopolitan Hotel this week.
The program manager says the summit centered around the awareness of utilizing PrEP to end the HIV epidemic, which includes people outside the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s a vital issue in his life: the Washington, D.C. local says he contracted HIV, which progressed into AIDS, during an insurance change two years ago. In the interim, he could not afford the pill.
“The pharmacist said it was $3,000 for me to get PrEP,” Parker said outside the summit Wednesday morning. “We are all HIV-possible. We are all susceptible or potentially vulnerable to HIV. So, if we take that perspective, then PrEP is a great prevention tool for a lot of people.”
While the judge’s ruling is elevated to a higher court, Rollins has become a PrEP navigator. He helps people with and without insurance access medication after an HIV diagnosis.
“The last person I had to tell they had HIV was a teenager, and that doesn’t feel good,” Rollins said before entering the summit. “PrEP works. PrEP prevents HIV. But, if people can’t access it, what good is it?”
SNHD also reported a rise in congenital syphilis rates in Clark County, which is when a mother infected with syphilis passes the infection to her baby during pregnancy. Gonorrhea and chlamydia rates slightly decreased county-wide in 2022 as well.