Pre-exposure prophylaxis | Centers for Disease Control

The Cook County Health & Hospitals System is expanding its efforts to make pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a pill that significantly reduces the risk of HIV infection, more widely available to West Side residents.

The system already offered PrEP at the Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center, its HIV treatment facility in Illinois Medical District. After receiving a $506,000 grant from the Chicago Department of Public Health, it was able to expand the CORE Center’s service hours and launched “PrEP Clinics” at the Austin Health Center and Dr. Jorge Prieto Health Clinic.

According to CCHHS spokesperson Mofita Thomas, patients that don’t qualify for insurance can apply for financial assistance and the system will help those that do qualify get coverage.

PrEP, also known by its brand name, Truvada, is designed to help people who are at high risk of HIV infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PrEP keeps the virus from infecting a patient permanently, reducing the risk of infection by up to 92 percent. The organization also emphasizes that it becomes much less effective of patients don’t take it regularly.

HIV prevention is a particularly acute issue in Chicago’s minority communities. The Chicago Department of Public Health’s 2015 HIV/STI Surveillance Report found that, as of 2014, new infection rates were higher among African-Americans (57.6 per 100,000) and Hispanics (27.6 per 100,000) compared to whites (24.6 per 100,000).

According to a CCHHS press release, patients don’t get PrEP just by asking for it.

“To determine eligibility for PrEP, clinic staff assesses patients’ risk of contracting HIV, their overall health status and other factors, including their likelihood of adhering to a daily medication regimen,” it the release stated. “Patients who start PrEP receive counseling about medication adherence and reducing risk of infection for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.”

Before July 5, the PrEP clinic hours were only held during three afternoon sessions a month. Now, the clinic is open on weekdays, between 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Austin Health Center, located at 4800 W. Chicago Ave., launched its own PrEP Clinic on Aug. 15. Thomas said that the clinic is open by appointment only Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. However, walk-ins are available every second and fourth Tuesdays and Thursdays of the month 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

On Sept. 15, CCHHS launched another PrEP Clinic at  its Dr. Jorge Prieto Health Clinic. It’s located at 2424 S Pulaski Rd, south of North Lawndale. Thomas said that its PrEP Clinic will he held on Monday and Wednesday, from 10:30 am to 6 pm, Thursday from 8:30 am to 4 pm and Friday from 11:30 am to 3:30 pm.

Dr. David Schwartz, Chair of Infectious Diseases at CCHHS, said that the expanded PrEP clinic will go a long way toward  reducing HIV infections in the community.

“We’re committed to doing all we can to reduce new HIV infections, and PrEP is an integral part of that,” Schwartz said.

The CCHHS statement indicates that commercial insurance plans cover the costs of the pill. Thomas clarified that Medicaid and Medicaid expansion programs such as CountyCare cover it as well. If the patients are eligible for those programs, the CORE Center will help them apply. There is even a program for patients that can’t qualify for any insurance program at all.

“The manufacturer’s assistance program (MAP) in question is from Gilead, the manufacturer [Truvada], ” Thomas said. “Patients are eligible for the MAP as long as they remain uninsured and do not qualify for insurance through the Affordable Care Act. For instance, unnaturalized immigrants might fall into that category, because they are not eligible to get insurance through the law.”

CORE Center, she said, helps such patients to apply. The center also lets the patients know if they’ve been approved. Thomas said that CCHHS has been working with a number of West Side and city-wide organizations to get the word out about the PrEP Clinics.

“To get the word out about the program, we are collaborating with West Side partners,  including Loretto Hospital, TaskForce Prevention, Enlace, Association House, Westside Health Authority, West Side Ministers Coalition and WHARP, ” she said. “[The] citywide partners include Chicago House, Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus, AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Making a Daily Effort (MADE) and Legal Council for Health Justice.”

The grant will be enough to keep the clinics going until the end of 2019. But what will happen once the grant money runs out?

“CCHHS will continue to look for funding support that will be available through other grantors,” Thomas said. “Also, CDPH will likely reapply for funding available from the CDC, since they will want to continue funding PrEP services if data indicates that HIV infection rates are decreasing with the implementation of this bio-medical intervention.”