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Tony K. LeTigre, Bay Area Reporter: AHF stages ‘die-in’ at Gilead headquarters

AHF stages ‘die-in’ at Gilead head-quarters
by Tony K. LeTigre, September 9, 2011

 

 

photo: Activists from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation picket the headquarters of Gilead Sciences in Foster City, demanding that the pharmaceutical company lower the price of Atripla. (Photo: Rick Gerharter)

The Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation recently staged a protest at the Bay Area headquarters of Gilead Sciences as part of an ongoing campaign to pressure the company and educate the public about the exorbitant price of HIV/AIDS medications, in particular the blockbuster three-in-one drug, Atripla.

 

On August 18 about 15 protesters, dressed in black with skeleton masks, held a “die-in” outside Gilead’s Foster City headquarters.

 

“We have asked Gilead to reduce their prices for AIDS drugs by 20 percent,” AHF associate director of communications Lori Yeghiayan told the Bay Area Reporter. “We also want them to commit to working with the HIV/AIDS community on a regular basis to negotiate prices that ensure the sustainability of state programs and access by people in need of life-saving medication.”

 

Atripla combines Gilead’s tenofovir and emtricitabine with Bristol-Myers Squibb’s efavirenz in a fixed-dose, once-daily pill.

 

The core of AHF’s complaint is that Atripla costs $10,000 annually per patient, and there are currently 9,200 people on waiting lists for AIDS Drug Assistance Programs nationwide in 12 different states.

California, as yet, is not one of them.

 

“So far, ADAP seems to cover my HIV meds just fine,” said gay San Francisco resident and choreographer Jessie Bie, 42.

 

But AHF President Michael Weinstein told the B.A.R. that the state’s financial situation is precarious.

 

“In California, at the present time, no one is on a waiting list, because state funds help people who can’t afford the drugs they need,” Weinstein said. “But earlier this year the governor proposed budget cuts that would have severe consequences for people whose medication depends on ADAP and Medi-Cal.”

 

Governor Jerry Brown’s January proposal introduced cost-sharing for ADAP patients with annual incomes over the amount allowed by 2011 federal poverty guidelines, which for a single person in the lower 48 states is $10,890.

 

The proposal, currently being hashed out by the governor’s office and the legislature, followed former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s $82 million cut to the state’s Office of AIDS budget in the 2009-10 fiscal year.

 

While Brown signed the $86 billion budget on June 30, cuts are still possible if projected revenues do not materialize.

 

Cara Miller, director of public affairs for Gilead Sciences, told theB.A.R. the company has gone to great lengths to assist people living with HIV, establishing a voluntary price freeze for ADAPs (now extended through 2013), providing co-payment assistance of up to $2,400 a year for insured patients, and changing income eligibility criteria to grant more patients access to the Patient Assistance Program, a stop-gap for those without insurance or on a wait list.

 

“All wait-listed patients are eligible for Gilead’s PAP and can stay on for as long as is required to transition them to some type of coverage,” Miller added.

 

Julian Cavazos, a gay Hispanic man and small business owner in Fort Lauderdale, is just such a patient. Cavazos, 50, was diagnosed with HIV 21 years ago, and initially went on Trizivir, which proved highly effective.

 

“My viral load went down, my T-cell count went up,” Cavazos said. “I was considered asymptomatic within a short time.”

 

Then the law firm he worked for closed due to lack of business, and he lost his insurance.

 

“At the time there were studies showing people going off HIV drugs and doing fine without them, and since I didn’t have insurance, that’s what I did too,” Cavazos said.

 

For five years he lived medication-free. Then, in May of this year, he entered an intensive care unit – still with no insurance – suffering from pneumocystis pneumonia. His doctor diagnosed him with full-blown AIDS and urged him to resume taking meds.

 

His hospital bill from that visit totaled $70,000.

 

For the time being, Cavazos receives three separate medications free of charge through the PAP, but he doesn’t feel secure about the future.

 

“The free drugs only last for a certain amount of time,” Cavazos said. “And I’ve been told I could be on the wait list for a year. If the free drugs run out, I would be in trouble. I cannot go off these meds.”

 

Weinstein asserted that PAP is not an adequate substitute for ADAP, and criticized it as a scam by which companies generate millions every year in tax breaks under the guise of charity, while also keeping drug prices high.

 

“Given that Atripla is sold ‘at cost’ for $600 per year in developing countries, Gilead could lower the price significantly and still make a huge profit,” said Adam Ouderkirk, Bay Area regional director for AHF and a leader of the Foster City protest.

 

Asked by the B.A.R. if she could verify the cost figure, Miller answered, “We do not provide specific detail around the manufacturing costs for our products.”

 

Earlier this year state Treasurer Bill Lockyer and state Controller John Chiang sent separate letters to Gilead on behalf of threatened ADAP patients. Chiang’s letter asked CEO John Martin to “provide additional pricing considerations that will translate into a cost savings for the program.”

 

This year marks the 30th anniversary of AIDS, which was first identified in a June 1981 publication by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

Courtney Mulhern-Pearson, director of state and local affairs for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, noted significant advances over the past year, including President Barack Obama’s unveiling of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and “exciting breakthroughs in HIV prevention.”

 

But, she added, the proposed funding cuts could undo that progress, leading back to higher rates of transmission and new infection.

 

Yeghiayan said the Foster City die-in is the latest in a string of demonstrations organized by AHF, which bills itself as the world’s largest HIV treatment nonprofit organization. The protests have averaged “about one every two weeks,” she said, and aren’t likely to stop any time soon.

 

“From here we’re only going to ramp up our efforts,” Yeghiayan added.

 

 

 

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