Manitoba health minister brushes aside call to fund costly HIV prevention drug PrEP

By | October 10, 2019

The province is facing calls to fund a high-priced drug that can significantly reduce a person’s risk of contracting HIV but Manitoba’s Health Minister won’t say if the government will cover the cost of the pill.

NDP MLA Bernadette Smith asked Health Minister Cameron Friesen if he would commit to funding the cost of PrEP — a pill studies show can reduce the risk of HIV transmission by 86 per cent or more.

She raised the issue during question period Thursday in the Manitoba Legislature — a day after a report showed 82 new patients were diagnosed in the province with HIV in 2018.

Friesen deflected and didn’t answer her question and instead touted the Tories’ investments in mental health and the fight against addictions.

“This government is taking action, this government is taking action in the form of our safer streets safer lives action plan,” he said.

$250-$1,000/month

The executive director of Nine Circles Community Health Centre said the pill, which now costs $250-$1,000 a month in Manitoba, isn’t available to marginalized people who can’t afford to pay for it and instead only to those who have the means to pay for it.

Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen speaks to reporters on October 9, 2019. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

“If you don’t have money you can’t and that just seems fundamentally unfair,” said Mike Payne.

Payne said he has not had any discussions with Friesen about getting the drug covered by the province’s pharmacare program.

But he noted he has previously talked with officials at Manitoba Health about it. He said he hasn’t heard an update from them in a long time and wondered if they were waiting for some kind of ministerial approval to have it funded. He said the research behind the effectiveness of PrEP is solid and shows it significantly reduces the risk of getting HIV. 

“It has been well proven around the world and across the country that if folks know that they’re at high risk for HIV infection and they take PrEP as medically advised the likelihood that they’re actually going to contract HIV is really negligible.”

Payne pointed out PrEP was originally designed to be taken by men who have condomless sex with men but is now being used by heterosexual couples who have one partner living with HIV.

It can also be used by injection drug users who are at high risk of contracting the virus.

Friesen’s office said Thursday the minister has repeatedly asked for a meeting with the federal government to discuss a number of important health issues, including the cross-country rise of sexually transmitted infections.

The Manitoba HIV program update said 2018 marked the first year that injection drug use surpassed heterosexual contact as being the most likely means of exposure to HIV.

The report says the province’s current criteria for accessing its drug program results in delays to treatment or a lack of it altogether, costing the health care system millions.

It said every time there is an HIV transmission prevented due to an undetectable viral load because of adherence to HIV medication, there is a minimum cost savings of $1.3 million.