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Equity efforts to end the AIDS epidemic

Shelley Shen, Clinical Partnerships, Research Specialist, Healthfirst
Duckette Gregoire, Clinical Partnerships, Innovation Project Specialist

Pre-exposure prophylaxis, better known as PrEP, is an invaluable tool for ending the AIDS epidemic. It reduces the chance of getting HIV from sex or intravenous drug use.

PrEP gained FDA approval in 2012. And, since 2014, New York State recorded steady declines in new HIV diagnoses year over year, as reported by the Ending the Epidemic Dashboard NY.

That changed in 2021, however, as the number of individuals filling PrEP prescriptions fell below state targets and the number of new HIV diagnoses increased.

Part of this is attributable to inequitable access to PrEP. In 2021, less than a quarter of Black and Hispanic/Latino people eligible for PrEP were prescribed it, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than three-quarters of their white counterparts had a PrEP prescription.

Addressing the inequities and stigma that surround HIV, AIDS, and PrEP prescriptions will take a unified effort across healthcare stakeholders in the state. And there’s no better time than PrEP Aware Week, October 23-29, to highlight the important work being done statewide.

Striving for equitable PrEP access

The New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute held its first PrEP Aware Week in 2019, providing more than 250 stakeholders (including Healthfirst, as well as healthcare providers, nonmedical health and human services providers, and colleges and universities) with a bilingual social media kit containing videos, ads, posts and other content designed to raise awareness of PrEP as an effective HIV prevention method.

And it worked — (6-9%) in filled PrEP prescriptions for two months following the awareness campaign. It is now an annual campaign.

Beyond participating in public education efforts like PrEP Aware Week, Healthfirst has additional resources and approaches to address all of our members’ conditions that may increase their risk for HIV.

The medication is a covered benefit in all Healthfirst plans, which can make it easier and more affordable for members to access PrEP.

We recognize that individuals are not defined by their health conditions, and it is important to acknowledge that they may have additional health and socioeconomic needs that could hinder their access to and recognition of the critical importance of PrEP in their overall healthcare regimen. PrEP not only offers an effective means of reducing the risk of HIV transmission but also has the potential to remove the psychological burden associated with the infection, promoting better mental health outcomes.

Partnering with community-based organizations has allowed Healthfirst members to benefit from access to care navigators who are dedicated to supporting individuals in navigating their care and addressing essential needs, such as transportation, food security, and housing stability. Navigators are also trained to educate and link members to PrEP, if they are interested. Addressing these critical social determinants of health, individuals receive well-rounded support, empowering them to continue to lead healthier and more fulfilling lives.

Healthfirst also taps our valuable provider partners in this work. Our teams are combing through data to identify top PrEP prescribers and reaching out to see if they’re willing to be added to the New York State Department of Health PrEP/PEP Voluntary Provider Directory, a public list of providers who prescribe PrEP designed to help those at risk of HIV find a clinician. By connecting members with a local provider who can prescribe PrEP, we not only improve their ease of access to PrEP but also empower individuals to protect themselves against HIV transmission and promote their overall well-being.

Everyone must come together to end the epidemic, and we’re proud to continue to partner with the state, community organizations, and providers to do our part.