State ends free HIV testing in most counties

Health advocates are warning that Kansas’ decision to stop providing free HIV testing for many small, rural communities restricts services for some of the most vulnerable in the state.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment used to provide services – such as free HIV testing kits and specimen analysis – to 40 counties.

But since Jan. 1, the health department has cut back, providing those services to only the 10 most populous counties with generally the most cases of HIV, the Hutchinson News reported Monday.

“What we’re really talking about is potentially decreased access to services,” said Michelle Ponce, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments. “If there’s not an entity in a community able to provide HIV testing on a basis which clients can afford, it’s not going to be done.”

Ralph Wilmoth, director of the state health department’s HIV/AIDS program, said the state and the federal Center of Disease Control and Prevention chose to use resources where they are most needed.

Overall, Kansas is considered a low incidence state for HIV and AIDS. States with higher incidences will be given more funding to pay for the tests, Wilmoth said.

The state said the money spent on free testing could be used more efficiently, particularly in counties with low rates of HIV infection.

Not all counties had offered the testing to begin with, Wilmoth said, but he was unsure of how many.

He said there are just 2,750 people living with HIV in Kansas and that in some counties the HIV infection rate is so low that spending money on testing in those areas made no sense.

Wilmoth also noted that the new federal Affordable Care Act is expected to provide HIV testing for people who previously were not eligible.

In Kansas, Medicaid pays for HIV testing if a physician orders it, Wilmoth said.

Donna Sweet, University of Kansas director of internal medicine education at Via Christi Regional Medical Center in Wichita, cautioned that people who live in rural communities where everyone knows everyone may be unwilling to discuss their concerns with a primary care physician. They might not recognize the signs or understand the risks, she said.

“Certainly it’s going to make an impact. People who are poor generally don’t have the money to pay for anything that is not free,” said Sweet, who has been the principal investigator for the Mountain Plains AIDS Education and Training Center since 1988.

Free testing will still be offered in Johnson, Sedgwick, Wyandotte, Shawnee, Crawford, Pratt, Riley, Saline, Thomas and Trego counties.

Sedgwick County

It is up to individual health departments to decide if they will offer the tests to people who live outside the county.

Sedgwick County Communications Coordinator Amanda Matthews said that the health department will accept anyone who wants to have a test, regardless of residency.

“We’re not limited on the number of tests, just limited on the number of staff to do the lab tests,” Matthews said.

In 2011, the Sedgwick County Health Department conducted about 3,750 HIV tests and in 2012, about 3,500 tests at the West Central location, Matthews said.

Another 200 rapid HIV tests were conducted by the county’s tuberculosis clinic in 2012.

Contributing: Kelsey Ryan of The Wichita Eagle.