U.S. Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris is set to introduce legislation expanding access to HIV-prevention medication.
On Thursday, Harris will introduce the PrEP Access and Coverage Act in Congress. In a statement, the Junior Senator from California claims the legislation will “guarantee insurance coverage” for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), which has been shown to reduce the risk of contracting HIV by over 90%.
But despite the effectiveness of medications like Truvada, Harris notes that the blue pill was accompanied by a “list price of over $20,000 per year.”
As a result of the prohibitively expensive price tag and lingering social stigma surrounding HIV, a 2018 study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that only four percent of sexually active men who have sex with men (MSM) in the U.S. are currently taking HIV-prevention medications.
Harris’ press release further notes that only 2% of Latinx and 0.1% of black individuals who could have potentially benefitted from drugs like Truvada were taking them as of 2016.
According to Harris, this “needs to change.”
“PrEP is a critical advancement in the fight against HIV that can finally provide peace of mind to Americans who live in the shadow of the HIV epidemic,” she says in an email shared with NewNowNext. “But for too many in our country, lack of insurance coverage and exorbitant costs have put PrEP out of reach.”
Harris hopes her legislation can be part of the solution.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) made recommendations requiring all public and private insurers to cover PrEP as part of their health plans by 2021. However, Harris says the PrEP Access and Coverage Act goes further by requiring insurance companies not to charge a copay for the medication. This would include government health plans like Medicare and Medicaid.
According to Harris, similar policies are already in place under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for contraception.
The legislation also calls for the creation of a grant program that would fund access to PrEP for individuals who are uninsured, as well as paying for associated testing and follow-up appointments.
The PrEP Access and Coverage Act would additionally make it illegal for disability and life insurance companies to deny coverage to an individual just because that person is currently taking PrEP medication. It would also prevent PrEP users from being charged higher premiums.
Lastly, it would also create a public education program geared toward fighting the stigma against PrEP. Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), infamously called Truvada a “party drug.”
Harris claims that her proposal would help the federal government better commit to ending the HIV/AIDS crisis in the U.S. Despite rapid advancement in treatment and prevention of the virus in the past few decades, more than 38,000 people were diagnosed with HIV in 2017. An estimated 1.1 million people in the U.S. are currently living with HIV.
“Nearly four decades since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis that took so many lives and caused countless others to live in fear, we can and will stop the spread of this disease,” Harris says.
The PrEP Access and Coverage Act is one of two bills this year that hope to tackle the widespread lack of PrEP usage among Americans. The PrEP Assistance Program Act, a piece of legislation introduced by U.S. House Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) in March, would create a grant program similar to the one outlined in Harris’ plan. Its 37 cosponsors included openly gay Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.).
Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney.
That legislation, however, has yet to receive a vote after being referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
While the PrEP Access and Coverage Act is unlikely to pass a Senate where Republicans hold a 53-47 majority, it’s not the first pro-LGBTQ bill Harris has put forward since she succeeded Barbara Boxer in the Senate two years ago.
After the U.S. Census Bureau announced in 2017 that the 2020 census would not ask questions about sexual orientation or gender identity, Harris introduced the Census Equality Act the following year along with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). The bill would mandate that the LGBTQ community be fully counted in the decennial census report, as well as the American Community Survey (ACS) conducted every two years.
Although the census has asked about same-sex couples since 1990, it has never included a question regarding LGBTQ identity. In 2018, Gallup estimated that 4.5% of the U.S. population identifies as LGBTQ.
The Census Equality Act failed to receive a vote in the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Kamala Harris at San Francisco Pride, 2016.
Since announcing her intention to run for president in January, Harris has been lauded for her longtime support of LGBTQ rights. As the Attorney General of California, she refused to defend Proposition 8, a voter referendum banning same-sex marriages in the state. Before that, she also worked at the San Francisco District Attorney’s office to outlaw the use of the “panic defense” in cases where an LGBTQ person is murdered.
Her record on equality, however, has been met with some criticism from LGBTQ progressives. During her time as the California Attorney General, Harris fought to withhold gender confirmation surgery from two incarcerated trans women.
While Harris has been criticized for her support of the anti-sex trafficking bill FOSTA/SESTA, which served to shutter resources that queer and trans sex workers relied on for safety, she has since come out in favor of decriminalizing prostitution. During a CNN Town Hall debate in April, she claimed, “We should not be criminalizing women who are engaged in consensual opportunities for employment.”
Tracking from RealClearPolitics shows Harris in currently polling in fourth for the Democratic nomination, behind Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. She averages 7.1% support in polls.