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Two MLAs add their voices to growing chorus calling on BC to cover HIV prevention drug

Spencer Chandra Herbert and Sonia Furstenau urge health ministry to pay for PrEP now

NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert says he’s been pushing for PrEP coverage behind the scenes for more than two years. Credit: Angelika Kagan/Xtra

On the campaign trail leading up to BC’s last election in May 2017, NDP leader John Horgan threw his support behind paying for a pill that prevents HIV. Now, nearly four months after he was sworn into office as premier, he has yet to subsidize the drug, and two MLAs are speaking up publicly about the delay.

In a letter dated Nov 7, 2017, and published on her Facebook page, Green Party health critic Sonia Furstenau urged BC’s Ministry of Health to avoid “unnecessary delays” in the rollout of a provincial PrEP program. Furstenau’s letter was quickly followed by a Facebook post from NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert.

PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a promising new tool for HIV prevention. Studies show that people who take the pill every day are at almost no risk of contracting HIV. The cost of the drug, however, still keeps it out of the hands of many who need it most.

Before he became premier, Horgan told Xtra in a January 2017 interview that it was a “mystery” why PrEP was not already covered by the province. Since the election, however, the Ministry of Health has given lukewarm responses to the idea.

Furstenau, the Green MLA for Cowichan Valley, told Xtra she had never heard about PrEP until her staff brought the issue to her attention. She says a provincial PrEP program fits with the Green party’s platform of evidenced-based health policy.

“Of course we know from a policy perspective that prevention is ultimately the goal of any kind of approach to health,” she says. “The prevention aspect of this makes perfect sense.”

In a Facebook post from Nov 9, Chandra Herbert stressed that he also supports a free PrEP program, and has been working behind the scenes to make it happen.

“I’ve been trying to get this done for over two and half years now,” he wrote. “We’re not there yet, but I believe we will get there.”

BC just lost its last two excuses not to cover the pill that prevents HIV

The MLA for Vancouver-West End told Xtra in a phone interview that he has received nothing but positive feedback on PrEP from the Ministry of Health.

“I know folks wanted this approved years ago, and so did I, but I don’t think people can expect that a government gets in and all of a sudden it gets approved,” he says. “There’s a process that has to be followed.”

On Nov 10, activists handed out flyers in front of Chandra Herbert’s constituency office on Denman Street, pointing out the NDP’s delay in delivering PrEP coverage. By the most recent statistics, more than a dozen gay and bisexual men are infected with HIV every month in BC.

Chandra Herbert says he’s still a strong advocate for PrEP, but that he can’t make policy single-handed.

“People have said to me, ‘It’s different now, you’re in government.’ And no, I’m still an MLA. I’m still pushing for something I’ve been pushing for since 2015,” he says.

“It looks like we’ve come to the point where all the pieces that need to be there are there, so I hope that the health minister will make an announcement soon,” he continues. “Obviously that’s in his court; it’s not something that I can decide.”

BC’s Ministry of Health told Xtra it will make a decision on a PrEP program by the end of 2017.

BC Liberal health critic Mike Bernier did not respond to Xtra’s request for comment before publication.