State health official alleges HIV/AIDS funding misspent

Near millionaires in Nevada who have either HIV or AIDS are receiving free medications from a government-funded drug assistance program, a violation of the program’s low-income eligibility requirements, a state health official has charged.

In a Wednesday e-mail to the heads of HIV/AIDS Southern Nevada social service agencies obtained by the Review-Journal, Nikki Isaacs, coordinator for the state’s HIV/AIDS Ryan White Programs in Nevada, said the conduct continues even as “new applicants are turned away for being slightly over the asset limit.”

The attorney general’s office is investigating these allegations, but it is also looking into Isaacs’ own conduct for potential wrongdoing.

According to Isaacs’ e-mail, abuse of the $7-million-a-year drug assistance program overseen by the state Department of Health and Human Services is one of only 14 issues that she asked top state officials, including the attorney general, to investigate.

The e-mail was sent to participants attending a symposium discussing state funding for HIV/AIDS programs.

Cynthia Pyzel, a chief deputy attorney general, said Thursday she has investigators looking into all of Isaacs’ allegations. She declined the Review-Journal access to Isaacs’ complete documents because of “an ongoing investigation,” but she noted that investigators will probe Isaacs’ association with the Access to Healthcare Network in Reno and whether she has violated any state ethics laws.

Access to Healthcare, where Isaacs sits on the board of directors, receives HIV/AIDS financial support from state Ryan White programs, where Isaacs plays a key role in funding social service agencies across the state. While Southern Nevada HIV/AIDS agencies have seen funds slashed or eliminated, Access to Healthcare received a cut of only 1.3 percent.

The investigations come amidst recent huge funding cuts for Ryan White HIV/AIDS programs as Nevada grapples with a more than $1 million shortfall in funds, largely brought on by a spiraling HIV/AIDS epidemic and higher medication costs to help those with the virus.

Mary Wherry, deputy administrator of the state Department of Health and Human Services, says she knows nothing about wealthy AIDS patients receiving free medication from the government.

“I’ve talked to everyone who assesses eligibility and they know nothing about it,” she said.

HIV cases have risen 98 percent in the last five years in Nevada. According to state health division statistics, there are now a total of 7,229 HIV/AIDS cases in Nevada.

Named for a hemophiliac teen from Indiana who became a national figure for fair treatment of those with HIV/AIDS, Ryan White programs are predominately funded by the federal Health Resource Service Administration with some state general funds.

The state’s health division anticipates a Ryan White federal grant of just more than $8 million for the upcoming year, with state funding projected at $1.7 million. That funding still comes up $1.2 million short of what officials say they need to continue providing a full array of services.

Six Southern Nevada HIV/AIDS agencies have had either deep cuts in programs or had them terminated so monies could be transferred to providing life-saving drugs.

The University of Nevada School of Medicine’s $350,000-a-year Nevada Care program in Las Vegas, which provides medical treatment necessary to keep all babies born to HIV-infected mothers free of the disease, saw its program eliminated.

Access to Healthcare in Reno lost $2,900 from its annual Ryan White HIV/AIDS funding of more than $220,000, according to state documents. About $80,000 is spent assessing the eligibility of people for the HIV/AIDS drug assistance program.

How the other $137,000 is spent is unclear.

“We don’t know what people are getting for their money,” Wherry said. “We’ve asked Access to Healthcare for documentation but we haven’t received anything yet. They tell us they pay $30 for a membership that gives HIV patients discounts on health care but many people have pointed out to us that HIV patients don’t have any money to even pay discounts. They may be doing something worthwhile. I don’t know.”

Sherri Rice, executive director of Access to Healthcare, did not return repeated phone calls.

Isaacs, in an e-mail to the Review Journal, declined to comment on either her allegations of fraud and misuse of funds or on her association with Access to Healthcare. She said she had to confer with her attorney.

In her Wednesday e-mail, Isaacs did not specify how many near millionaires in the state with HIV/AIDS are taking free antiviral drugs from government programs, only that free medications were being dispensed to them.

Under the federally and state funded AIDS Drug Assistance Program, an individual cannot make more than about $34,000 a year to be eligible for the free drugs. Applicants may own a home and one car, and additional assets cannot exceed $4,000.

Isaacs’ e-mail also contends that Southern Nevada social service organizations are unfairly funded in comparison to their Northern Nevada counterparts.

One example, she alleges, is that a Northern Nevada pharmacy that dispenses HIV/AIDS drugs is better funded than University Medical Center’s pharmacy.

But UMC spokeswoman Danita Cohen said UMC officials said the funding arrangement, based on population served, is fair.

Isaacs, who referred to herself as a whistle-blower in the e-mail, also wrote that Carson City Health and Human Services escaped budget cuts because of favoritism by state officials.

She said that government body only services four patients, with a budget of more than $70,000 a year.

Wherry said Carson City has no other funding stream to help HIV/AIDS patients.

Pyzel said it is important that Nevada citizens withhold judgment on whether Isaacs’ allegations of wrongdoing are legitimate.

“We’ve found that there are all sorts of reasons for people being a whistle-blower,” she said. “There are good reasons and sometimes we’ve found people are trying to launching a peremptory strike.”

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

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