Georgia lawmaker wants free PrEP program to fight HIV

A bill that would provide free PrEP medication to those at high risk of contracting HIV may soon see a vote by the full Georgia House.

State Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Republican from Marietta who sponsored the legislation, said the three-year pilot program could be expanded after its conclusion.

“It would be a program that would allow us to see what kind of adherence we got, how the medication was working and in general, see if it was an effective program for us to put across statewide,” she said at a Health & Human Services (HHS) Committee meeting on Tuesday.

House Bill 290 would provide PrEP to people in counties identified by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention as at risk of HIV outbreaks due to a high rate of opioid use. PrEP is the use of a once-a-day pill taken by HIV-negative people to reduce the risk of infection. PrEP reduces the risk of HIV infection by up to 92 percent, according to the CDC.

Participants in the program would receive regular HIV testing, sexually transmitted infections testing and other unspecified supportive services.

Cooper (top photo), the chair of the HHS committee, said the program would cost the state $50,000 for the first year and $250,000-$300,000 for the entire three years, depending on how many people stay in it.

The committee unanimously passed the bill and sent it to the House for consideration. 

Cooper gave credit to state Rep. Park Cannon for her work on the bill. An identical version of HB 290 sponsored by Cannon failed to make it out of the House in 2018.

“She has worked hard on all HIV issues, and she has dogged me to death until I got this one dropped and to our committee, which I appreciate her doing with the hassle we have had this session being a little bit different getting off to a slow start,” Cooper said at the HHS committee meeting.

Cannon, a Democrat from Atlanta who is one of five LGBTQ members of the legislature, praised Cooper’s efforts as well.

“It is a pleasure to work with Chairwoman Cooper on this important life-saving legislation,” she told Project Q Atlanta.

Cannon added that eligibility for the pilot program could end up being wider than is specified in the current version of the bill.

The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) would be responsible for implementing the program. 

In 2017, Cannon sponsored a bill that would provide better information about HIV prevention to people when they receive an HIV test and the result is negative. Cooper, in lieu of seeing the bill likely fail before the full House, blocked it and pressed the state health department to implement the changes the bill recommended through their internal rules and regulations process.

Cannon told Project Q that state health officials followed through on those instructions. 

Cannon is the only Democratic co-sponsor of HB 290. The Republican co-sponsors are Rep. Deborah Silcox of Sandy Springs, Rep. Houston Gaines of Athens and Rep. Gerald Greene of Cuthbert in South Georgia. Silcox and Gaines are also members of the HHS committee.