Sask. medical students calling for universal coverage of HIV drugs

A group of medical students in Saskatchewan wants every person with HIV in the province to be given access to antiretroviral drugs.

On Tuesday, the Student Medical Society of Saskatchewan will be meeting with Health Minister Jim Reiter and Rural and Remote Health Minister Greg Ottenbreit to make their pitch for universal coverage.

"We know that in this province, 50 per cent of people infected with HIV have never accessed antiretroviral therapy," medical student Jacqueline Carverhill told CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning. "If they're not on these medications, we're not able to control the HIV infection."

While status First Nations and Inuit people are able to get their antiretroviral drugs paid for by the federal government, many other people are unable to access the drugs they need.

"We have such a patchwork of insurance programs in this province that it's very difficult for people who are HIV positive to navigate," she said. "We end up having a lot of patients who end up falling through the cracks."

Carverhill said that's a big problem in Saskatchewan. She said the HIV infection rate in the province is almost 2.5 times higher than the national average, and the mortality rate is four times higher.

"I think our MLAs are aware we have a problem on our hands," she said. "We want to talk to them about what's going on, why people aren't accessing coverage."

She said universal coverage for HIV antiretroviral drugs isn't a new idea. British Columbia brought it in in the late '90s, and saw success with the program.

"They saw an 80 per cent decrease in deaths related to HIV and a 66 per cent decrease in transmission of HIV in the decade or two following," she said.

While Carverhill said it's difficult to estimate what the cost of the universal coverage would be, she said each new case of HIV costs the province $1.4 million over the lifetime of the patient.