HIV PrEP Prescriptions Often Go Unfilled

Heather Boerner

November 17, 2020

Same-day HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) prescriptions and insurance navigation services led 70% of people at a Detroit sexually transmitted infection clinic to ask for a PrEP prescription. But only 40% of those same people came back for a follow-up appointment, and 5 acquired HIV during the review period.

To Amanda Allmacher, DNP, RN, nurse practitioner at the Detroit Public Health STD Clinic, that means that same-day PrEP prescribing works and is acceptable. But there's more work to do on the clinic and pharmacy side to make HIV protection a reality for most of her patients. Allmacher presented her data at the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care 2020 virtual annual meeting.

Dawn K. Smith, MD, epidemiologist and medical officer in the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, said this adds to other data to show that we're now entering the next phase of PrEP implementation.

"Our original focus was on uptake — informing folks what PrEP is, why they might benefit from its use, and then prescribing it if accepted," Smith told Medscape Medical News via email. "Whether standard or same-day [PrEP prescribing], it is clear that uptake is only the first step."

Nurses Help Navigate

Patients who attended the Detroit Public Health STD Clinic are more likely to be younger, have no insurance, and otherwise "have little to no contact with the healthcare system," Allmacher said in her presentation. They also tend to come from communities that bear the greatest burden of HIV in the US — in other words, they are often the people most missed in PrEP rollouts thus far.

In response, the clinic implemented a same-day PrEP protocol, in which registered nurses trained in HIV risk assessment identify clients who might most benefit from PrEP. Criteria often include the presence of other STIs. Once the nurse explains what PrEP is and how it works, if the patient is interested, clients meet with a nurse practitioner right then to get the prescription for PrEP. The clinic also does labs to rule out current HIV infection, hepatitis B, metabolic issues, and other STI screening.

But it doesn't stop there. The clinic used grant funding to offer PrEP navigation and financial counseling services, which help clients navigate the sometimes-thorny process of paying for PrEP. Payment comes either through Medicaid, which in Michigan charges $3 a month for a PrEP prescription, through patient assistance programs, or through private insurance. With clients under age 18 who are interested in PrEP, the clinic works to find a way to access PrEP without having to inform their parents. These same navigators schedule follow-up appointments, offer appointment reminders, and contact clients when they miss an appointment.

"Our navigators and financial counselors are a huge support for our same-day PrEP starts, helping with financial assistance, prior authorization, navigating different plans, and helping patients apply for Medicaid when appropriate," she said.

The clinic also offers community outreach and incentives, which can include gift cards, bus passes, and pill containers, among other things.

This was a key lesson in setting up the program, Allmacher told Medscape Medical News.

"Starting PrEP at that initial visit allows for clinicians to meet patients where they are and administer care in a more equitable manner," Allmacher said via email. "Use all available resources and funding sources. We have a versatile team working together to increase access for patients and promote HIV prevention and risk reduction."

Script vs Follow-Up

This approach is common, used in places like New York City and San Francisco. So once it was set up Allmacher sat back and waited to see how the program helped clients protect themselves from HIV.

Of the 451 clients eligible for PrEP in 2019, 336 were gay and bisexual men, 6 were transgender women, 61 were heterosexual, cisgender men, and 48 were cisgender women. One transgender man also screened as eligible. Allmacher did not break down data by race.

Uptake was high: 70% of all eligible clients did receive a prescription for PrEP, either generic tenofovir disoproxil fumarate/emtricitabine (Truvada) or tenofovir alafenamide/emtricitabine (Descovy). And uptake was high among people most at risk: 80% of gay and bisexual men who were eligible got a prescription, 60% of eligible cisgender women, 50% of the small number of transgender women, and 32.7% of heterosexual cisgender men did as well. The 1 transgender man also received a prescription.

This is a higher rate than found in a recent PrEP demonstration project, which found that despite gay and bisexual men, transgender adults, and Black people having the highest risk for HIV in the US, state health departments were more likely to refer heterosexual adults for PrEP.

That high uptake rate is encouraging, but follow-up? Not so much. After initial intake, clients are meant to return in a month to double-check their labs, ask about side effects, and start their 90-day supply of the medication. But just 40% showed up for their 30-day appointment, Allmacher said. And only one third of those showed up for the follow-up in 90 days.

By the end of 2019, just 73 of the original 451 clients screened were still taking PrEP.

"It was surprising to see just how significant the follow-up dropped off after that first visit, when the patient initially accepted the prescription," Allmacher said.

And while it's possible that some clients get their follow-up care from their primary care providers, "our clinic serves individuals regardless of insurance status and many do not identify having access to primary care for any type of service, PrEP or otherwise," she said.

5 HIV Acquisitions

In addition, the program review identified five clients who had been offered PrEP or had taken PrEP briefly who later acquired HIV. Those clients were offered same-day antiretroviral treatment, Allmacher said.

"So we're finding people who are at high risk for HIV and we can prevent them, but we're still not quite doing enough," Allmacher said of those acquisitions. "Clearly we have a lot of work to do to focus on HIV prevention, and we are looking to create a more formal follow-up process" from the clinic's side.

For instance, clinic staff call clients 1 week after their initial visit to share lab results. "This was identified as a missed opportunity for us to ask about their status, whether they filled their prescription, or if they need further assistance," she said. "This is an area where our registered nurses are going to be taking on a greater role moving forward."

Allmacher and team also discovered that, despite PrEP navigators arranging insurance coverage for clients on the day they receive their prescription, sometimes there were still barriers when the client showed up at the pharmacy to pick up their meds. The clinic does not have an in-house pharmacy and does not currently have the funding that would allow them to hand patients a bottle of the appropriate medication when they leave the clinic.

"Navigating the copays and the insurance coverage and using financial assistance through the drug manufacturer — even though we have the support in the clinic, it seems like there's a disconnect between our clinic and getting to the pharmacy. Not every pharmacy is super familiar with navigating those," she said. "So we have started to identify some area pharmacies near our clinic that are great at navigating these, and we really try to get our patients to go to places we know can give them assistance."

Association of Nurses in AIDS Care 2020: Late Breaking Abstract 3. Presented November 12, 2020.

Heather Boerner is a science and medical reporter based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her book, "Positively Negative: Love, Sex, and Science's Surprising Victory Over HIV," came out in 2014.

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