Credit: Sofi Gratas/GPB News
No insurance? Here's how to access HIV testing, treatment and support services in Georgia
LISTEN: September 27 is National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. In the early 1980s, when the virus first emerged, there were few options for treating the infection and thousands died of its late-stage illness, AIDS. Now, doctors have treatments that can help those with HIV live healthy lives. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge reports.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). When a person becomes infected with HIV, the virus attacks and weakens the immune system, putting the person at risk of getting life-threatening infections and cancers.
But a diagnosis of HIV is not a death sentence.
"We have what we need today to end this epidemic," Dr. Laura Cheever said. "There are a lot of great prevention strategies, including PrEP, pre-exposure prophylaxis, which means someone at risk for HIV can take either one pill once a day or get an injection either once a month or once every two months to prevent getting HIV."
Cheever is a board-certified infectious disease doctor who runs the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, which is a federal program that provides funding every year to help with HIV care, treatment and essential support services such as transportation, meal delivery, and housing assistance, for people who can't afford to get it on their own.
She said the RWHAP funds about $2.3 billion in grants to cities, counties, states, and local community-based organizations.
In states such as Georgia that don't have either expanded Medicaid or waivers for people with HIV, medication and primary services are paid through the Ryan White program.
Earlier this year, the Georgia House Public and Community Health Committee proposed a plan to expand Medicaid coverage to Georgians living with HIV, but the bill never made it to the floor.
Currently, people with AIDS are eligible for Medicaid in Georgia, but they’re not covered when they test positive for HIV.
Policy experts with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute have said for years that expanding Medicaid would help preventative more emergency-room-level crises.
Georgia’s Medicaid program does not insure all poor adults. Partly as a result, the state had the nation’s third-worst rate of people without any health insurance, according to U.S. Census data from 2018.
Rep. Sharon Cooper, who chairs the Georgia House's Public and Community Health Committee, said it would be better to extend Medicaid to those who are HIV-positive.
“They can live a normal life where they do not transmit the disease,” Cooper said. “However, if they do not get the medicines they need or if they have other illnesses that can debilitate them … things get worse. They get full-blown AIDS.”
Cooper estimates that it costs the state about $10,000 a year to treat people with HIV.
“If they go to a full-blown case of AIDS, it's about $30,000 a year,” Cooper said. “So, it's a definite savings to the state to take care of these people.
That $30,000 figure doesn’t include the cost of hospitalization, which can cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, she said.
Though many people have likely heard about HIV and AIDS, 1 in 8 people in this country who have HIV don't know they have it, Cheever said, which is why getting tested is crucial — especially for gay and bisexual men.
This group accounted for 67% of new HIV diagnoses in the United States and dependent areas in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Most people diagnosed with HIV can start one pill once a day to really help them live a near normal lifespan with HIV and not transmit HIV sexually to other people," Cheever said.
National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day was first recognized in 2008 by the National Association of People with AIDS to raise awareness of the disproportionate impact of the HIV epidemic on gay and bisexual men in the United States.
The observance offers an opportunity to fight stigma and encourage HIV testing, prevention, and treatment among gay and bisexual men. This population faces multiple challenges — such as racism, discrimination, homophobia, and stigma — that may increase the risk for HIV.
Disparities persist among Black and African American and Hispanic or Latino gay and bisexual men, who receive more new HIV diagnoses than those of other racial and ethnic groups. In addition, young men aged 13 to 24 with HIV are more likely to be unaware of their HIV status than men of different age groups.
In the Atlanta area, there's a robust system of HIV care treatment accessible via RyanWhite.HRSA.gov.
People can enter their ZIP code and find care and treatment services near where they live.