Early in the AIDS epidemic, drugs were delivered in a “cocktail” that was as miraculous as it was toxic. Now, as survivors of that epidemic get grayer, life-altering side effects are emerging. While some are devilishly hard to treat, there’s one condition that is a particularly easy target: a disfiguring disease called lipodystrophy. Easy, that is, if only legislators on Beacon Hill had the gumption to pass a bill that has been rattling around in one form or another since 2014.
The bill would require that health insurers cover treatment of lipodystrophy, a painful disease that leaves fat deposits on the face, neck, and back – and can cause psychological damage to sufferers, who are often afraid to leave their homes. Insurance companies have balked at covering it on the grounds that it falls under the category of “cosmetic” treatment and is not medically necessary.
Medical researchers have for years been aware of the long-term side effects of early AIDS medication — secondary infections as well as complications from interactions with other medications, including chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. But the thought that lipodystrophy – one of the most treatable – should be grouped with beauty-enhancing plastic surgery is, at best, misguided.
The physical and psychological pain caused by the condition can be debilitating. Treatment, which can include liposuction, is inexpensive and would hardly be a burden on insurance companies or taxpayers. Lipodystrophy affects only long-term AIDS survivors — it is not a side effect of newer AIDS/HIV medications. It’s estimated that there are only a few hundred survivors suffering with the disease in Massachusetts. The Center for Health Information and Analysis reported in 2014 that coverage for the benefit would result in an annual increase, over five years, to a monthly premium of between $0.01 and $0.10 per year.
Health insurance costs are clearly of legitimate concern in Massachusetts. But the number of AIDS survivors with the disease is dwindling. Treatment of lipodystrophy would afford them some dignity, at minimal cost. The state Senate recently passed a bill requiring health insurers to cover treatment of the condition. The bill now sits in the House Ways and Means Committee. Sponsored by Representative Sarah Peake and Senator Mark Montigny, the bill deserves to be passed into law.