Local HIV/AIDS center: New York’s Medicaid changes are going to hurt them

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New York state is taking a big step in three weeks in an attempt to reign in the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs. It’s part of the plan to carve out the state’s Medicaid program and transition to a new model called NYRx.

This plan will affect millions of New Yorkers who are on Medicaid. However, members of the Damien Center — a health-related organization — told 13 Investigates this could be life or death for their patients.

Roughly 111,000 people are living with HIV in New York, and about 50 of them live at the Albany Damien Center. It’s a place that’s designed to improve the lives of those affected by the virus.

“The Damien Center changed my whole life around. I was homeless,” Frank Travis said.

“I was addicted to drugs for quite a few years,” Monica Cozzolino said. “I got really sick and ended up getting an [leg] amputation…when the time was right, I ended up here, and it’s been so good ever since.”

Cozzolino and Travis said they consider this place a safe haven.

The Damien Center’s executive director, Perry Junjulas, said nearly a quarter of his $3.5 million budget is going to be slashed. He said he will be forced to cut some of the Damien Center’s lifesaving programs that have made this place home for Travis and Cozzolino.

“It’s not just cutting off services, it’s cutting off services to people who’ve been disproportionately marginalized over the years. Why are we doing it still?” Junjulas said. “The fact that I’m going to have to not house as many people and make a choice as to which meals they’re going to get. I just need someone to come and save us because I don’t want to.”

The Damien Center is a 340B program. It’s a federal program that has been around since the early 1990s. It’s designed to sell prescription drugs at a discounted rate to healthcare organizations that care for high-risk communities that are uninsured and have low incomes. It allows facilities to use their savings and provide additional essential services.

“We’ve used these savings to house, feed, provide mental health counseling, pharmacy support, medication adherence, transportation, the list kind of goes on,” Junjulas said.

The 340B program is getting rolled back once New York state starts managing its own plan under NYrx, starting April 1.

The Medicaid carveout is designed to reduce prescription drug costs by merging the state’s purchasing power. That means New York state’s health department will directly administer pharmacy benefits.

Assemblyman John McDonald is also a licensed pharmacist. He says the eight million Medicaid patients in the state will benefit from NYrx, including the 250,000 benefitting from 340B.

“What this program does, it gets away from the way I see programs, as a practicing pharmacist, a lot of formulary exclusions, a lot of drugs not covered, a lot of prior authorization. Which can be delaying patient care,” said McDonald.

Junjulas said he’s had conversations with the state about his concerns. He said he feels like no one’s listening. He said the budget cuts threaten care for HIV and AIDS patients.

“If it wasn’t for this place. I don’t think I would know where I’d be right now or what I’d be doing, or if I’d still be alive,” Travis said.

“The Damien Center saved my life,” said Cozzolino. “I’ve been able to work on my mental health issues. I’ve been encouraged, and I’ve been congratulated. I’ve been lifted up by the staff and the members. We need that. Lots of times, our self-esteem does not allow us to believe that.”

New York’s Medicaid director tells 13 Investigates why HIV patients won’t be without a safety net. Click here to watch part 2 to find out why the director also understands why it’s hard for the Damien Center to trust the state.