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A Sag in AIDS Treatment

September 04, 1988

Emergency federal funding is running out for AZT, the only drug that has proved to be effective in prolonging the lives of many AIDS patients. No major funding is in sight. As a result, an estimated 6,000 persons face suspension of the treatment, and future treatment of an increasing caseload will be imperiled.

Leaders of Congress are reluctant to remedy the problem, arguing that AIDS is but one of many catastrophic illnesses that are crippling and impoverishing Americans in a health system that provides no medical or hospital protection for 38 million persons. Congressional leaders insist that the deficit-reduction program prevents them from addressing the problem. Some have insisted that the states themselves should solve the problem. Furthermore, they remind us that Congress warned from the outset that the program was a one-time emergency move.

A more appropriate response would recognize that the situation has changed, and it is now clear that the need that inspired the emergency program has grown into a desperation that requires a permanent program. The search for overall insurance to protect against the terrible consequences of catastrophic illness for all Americans needs to be pursued. Only through a national approach can there be a cost-effective global program. In the meantime, however, a further funding of the AZT program should not be delayed.

California has enough funds from the federal program to continue payments for AZT for several months. The Legislature has voted and sent to Gov. George Deukmejian legislation providing $2.8 million to try to maintain the program until the end of June. More than 700 are now enrolled.

California and all but two of the states provide funding for AZT to those who qualify for Medi-Cal (Medicaid in other states). The emergency federal program has provided help for those who do not qualify for Medi-Cal and have no independent insurance, protecting persons with incomes up to $40,000. The cost of AZT remains at about $8,000 a year, a burden that few can afford. As the federal money runs out, those who need the drug will be forced to impoverish themselves, buying the drug with their own funds until they meet the reduced income required for Medi-Cal enrollment.

The cruelty of forced impoverishment in addition to the burden of the disease itself mocks the American commitment to justice and compassion. It seems to us absurd to argue that this rich and generous nation cannot afford protection for its people against catastrophic health-care costs--a protection assured by virtually every other industrialized nation.

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