Georgia Senate panel OKs PrEP pilot program

A bill that would create a three-year pilot program to provide free PrEP medication to those at high risk of contracting HIV got the unanimous approval of a Georgia Senate committee on Wednesday.

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.

State Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Republican from Marietta who sponsored the legislation, said that HB 290 would help tackle Georgia’s worst-in-the-nation rate of new HIV infections by supplying and studying the use of PrEP.

“We really need to understand the reasons that people do not adhere to the program and find out what we can do differently to help them adhere to such a program and to see if it would be effective on a larger scale,” she said during testimony in the Senate Health & Human Services committee meeting.

The Georgia Department of Public Health would establish and manage the pilot program. Cooper (top photo) said the program will cost between $50,000 and $300,000 for the entire three years.

“So it’s a very low cost to our state with great potential to alleviate very astronomical costs later on as we deal with people that go from HIV to active AIDS and all the complications and hospitalizations that go along with it,” she said.

HIV/AIDS activist Devon Barrington Ward said that HB 290 lessens the burden put on people living with HIV when it comes to prevention. 

“By incorporating more PrEP, this allows people in higher risk populations who are in higher risk communities to share the responsibility of preventing the virus versus putting that responsibility solely on people who are living with HIV, which increases the level of stigma that people who are HIV-positive deal with,” he said in testimony to the committee. 

House Bill 290 now awaits a vote in the full Senate. The House Health & Human Services committee passed it on Feb. 20 and the full House passed it on March 1. It’s part of a package of Republican-led bills tackling Georgia’s HIV epidemic.

A bill that would make it easier for HIV-positive Medicaid recipients to receive the most effective medications passed in the House on Feb. 19. It received a hearing before the Senate HHS committee on Feb. 25 but the panel did not vote on the measure.

The Senate HHS committee approved a bill creating a needle exchange program to help reduce HIV rates in Georgia on Monday. It now awaits a vote in the full Senate.