A Yellowknife resident calls on the Government of the Northwest Territories to provide free HIV preventative medication to residents without health insurance.

William Gagnon said HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a pill taken daily by people at high risk of contracting HIV, is not covered by the NWT government for people without health insurance.

This means residents in need would have to pay out of pocket.

“If you don’t [have insurance] so that could be a big financial hurdle,” Gagnon told CBC News.

“So I just think it should be universal coverage.”

The drug is shown to be effective in preventing HIV when taken as prescribed and is covered for residents of several other jurisdictions, including Yukon, Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Jeremy Bird, spokesman for the Department of Health, said in an email that the current policy does not offer the drug because the Northwest Territories Specified illnesses Supplementary health insurance Program coverage requires diagnosis of a specific condition. He said it cost about $1,000 a month for those who weren’t covered.

However, most employer insurance plans cover PrEP, as well as non-insured health benefit programs for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.

Comments on proposed changes

Gagnon started a petition that encourages residents to fill out a feedback form that the territorial government is collecting on proposed changes to the extended health benefits policy.

The territory is proposing to expand coverage for those without health insurance and earning less than a certain amount per year.

The changes would make PrEP free for those who fall into this category.

The feedback form states that the Northwest Territories has not updated its health benefits policy in 34 years and does so to ensure it meets the goals of fairness and equity.

Chelsea Thacker is the Executive Director of Northern Mosaic Network. Thacker said PrEP should be available to all residents, regardless of income. (Photo by Jared Monkman/CBC)

Chelsea Thacker, executive director of the Northern Mosaic Network, said it was good for the Northwest Territories to take feedback, but said PrEP should have been offered to residents long before that.

“We shouldn’t even be debating preventive health care measures and access to them,” they said.

“So many people need access to this drug to be able to come into physical contact with their partner safely.”

Thacker added that PrEP should be accessible to everyone, regardless of income.

“Basing on people’s income is not necessarily something we have the right to do,” they said.

“A lot of people have different expenses that we’re not aware of. And so with so many things that still need to be paid for in our healthcare system, I think this medicine should just be free for everyone.”

Northwest Territories faces syphilis outbreak

The territory has had only five cases of HIV diagnosed in the past five years, according to data provided by the Ministry of Health.

However, rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as a whole are among the highest in the country, and the territory is in the midst of an unprecedented syphilis epidemic.

Sean Hosein is a science and medical writer at Catie.ca, a Canadian website providing information about HIV and other STIs.

He said infection with syphilis facilitates transmission of HIV due to inflammation or damage to the genitals.

“So when you have inflammation inside or on the genitals, or tiny holes or lesions, not only can you spread syphilis to other people, but you can also catch other germs, including HIV,” Hosein said.

He said that in the long run, preventative drugs like PrEP are much more cost effective than treatment.

“It’s always cheaper and easier and simpler to prevent something than to wait for it to get complicated later,” he said.

“So the costs of PrEP are really low compared to the lifetime cost of treating chronic HIV infection.”

By Friday afternoon, nearly 2,000 people had signed Gagnon’s petition, which was launched on Tuesday.

Residents interested in providing feedback on proposed changes to NWT Extended Health Care benefits have until October 14 to do so.