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Senate Plan Would Not Pay for New HIV Patients

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A Texas Senate subcommittee approved a proposal on March 24 that would deny funding for additional patients in a program that supplies HIV drugs to low-income people, even after adding billions of dollars for health and human services.

Without those drugs, one state health official said, patients will likely get sick and die.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, later said he expects “life-saving drugs will be included’’ in the final budget.

The Senate panel voted to spend an additional $4.5 billion on state-supplied health services, but the HIV program was not a top priority. Where the state would find the additional funding was also not addressed.

Texas is facing a $24 billion budget shortfall to maintain current services.

The chair of the finance subcommittee, state Sen. Jane Nelson, told budget writers to put their priorities into three categories, with “priority one” being the most
important.

“In light of our current fiscal constraints, what you have before you today are the recommendations to our full finance committee to add $4.5 billion of priority-one items,’’ Nelson explained.

But when the HIV drug program showed up as a priority-two item, Democratic State Sen. Judith Zaffirini asked Department of State Health Services commissioner Dr. David Lakey what would happen if the patients did not get their medication.

He replied: “The natural progression, without any medications, would be that
they die.’’

“And this is in priority two, which is really a wish list?’’ Zaffirini asked. “It is my belief that when we vote on a priority like this, we are basically making a decision regarding who lives and who dies.’’

Nelson had Lakey explain that one-time-only funding from the federal government paid for the $19.2 million program in the last budget cycle, and now that funding is gone. The program currently provides $6,700 worth of HIV drugs annually to 14,000 people who don’t have insurance and make less than $30,000 a year, Lakey said.

“I simply cannot vote for this proposal. I believe it is wise to add $4.5 billion, but that is not enough,’’ Zaffirini said. “And I doubt items in priority two will be funded at this time.’’

Even Republicans who voted to recommend the bill to the full Senate Finance Committee said they didn’t like the proposal.

“It’s going to be real hard for me to support the budget out of full committee if we only put the $4.5 billion back,’’ state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler). “There are too many Texans that need our help that will be hurt if we only do the $4.5 billion.’’

Dewhurst, a Republican, said he later talked with Zaffirini and told reporters that the HIV program would be funded. He did not say how. —Chris Tomlinson, Associated Press

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