There is a debilitating and disfiguring side effect of early HIV medications that causes profound suffering among our longest-term survivors of the HIV epidemic. For some, it is so severe that they do not leave their homes and become shut-ins, depressed, and suicidal. For others it causes chronic physical pain and structural damage, including spine and neck problems. And for many it is an involuntary public disclosure of HIV, still the most stigmatized health condition in America. Most public and private insurers refuse to cover the simple, inexpensive, and effective medical treatments available to remedy it.
This condition is called lipodystrophy. It is one of the most underappreciated and unattended challenges of the HIV epidemic. Massachusetts just became the first and only state in the nation to mandate insurance coverage for lipodystrophy. And we hope that the experience of the Treat Lipodystrophy Coalition in Massachusetts will become a national model for advocacy and legislation to end this unnecessary suffering.
The word “lipodystrophy” is unfamiliar to many people, even within the LGBT and HIV communities. Lipodystrophy is a consequence of the first wave of HIV medications in the late 1990s, which transformed HIV into a chronic and manageable disease. It is a metabolic disorder characterized by the abnormal distribution of fat in the body. People with lipodystrophy experience a range of disfiguring body shape changes with colloquial names like “buffalo hump” (an abnormal fat pad on the back of the neck) and “horse collar” (abnormal fat growth in the front and side of the neck and under the chin). It also causes severe wasting in the face and limbs. The effects can be devastating.
Several years ago, my organization - GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), a legal group that fights discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and HIV status - began to hear from people who had been unfairly denied medical care by insurers on the specious grounds that treatment for lipodystrophy is “cosmetic.” It was through representing these individuals in their insurance appeals that I came to fully appreciate the profound physical and psychological harm caused by lipodystrophy – and to understand advocating for treatment as a true life and death matter. What we discovered was that the few people who had the capacity to lawyer up, get letters from physicians and psychologists, file an appeal citing the established medical literature about lipodystrophy, and threaten to sue, were often able to get the medical care they needed. But the very nature of the disease meant that the majority of people suffering from lipodystrophy were unlikely to be able to take on this kind of self-advocacy. It became clear that systemic change was needed.
The path to successful legislation in Massachusetts began with a conversation about the challenge of untreated lipodystrophy with Carl Sciortino, then a state representative and now the Executive Director of the AIDS Action Committee. He first raised the idea of introducing a bill and stepped up to be the original sponsor. At that time, no other legislator had heard of lipodystrophy. Most people in the HIV community, and many physicians treating them, simply assumed that coverage was impossible. Few people even bothered to try.
GLAD formed the Treat Lipodystrophy Coalition, which was made up of people living with HIV, physicians, and HIV advocacy and service organizations. We knew that to have a chance at passing an insurance mandate, we would need to find and present the stories of people whose experience living with untreated lipodystrophy would shock legislators in Massachusetts into understanding this as a critical health care issue. It was a daunting task. The shame and stigma of lipodystrophy is so powerful that many people would not meet with us and still others were not able to come forward publicly.
But with painstaking work, we were able to find a number of courageous individuals who allowed us to share their stories in the form of a book we produced called “Treatment for Lipodystrophy Denied: Sound and Compassionate Healthcare for People with HIV.” Those stories galvanized both legislators and our own community into action. We met a man named John Wallace from South Boston, whose lipodystrophy was so severe that he became hopeless and depressed and never left his home. He told us: “I’ve thought about suicide many times. But it goes against my Catholic faith.” We told the story of Mark S., who described being called “freak” and “monster” just steps from the Massachusetts State House. There is George Hastie, who recounted being denied coverage for a three-pound pad on the back of his neck that resulted in permanent spinal damage. And Andrew Fullem, who described being a “walking advertisement for HIV.”
Our first legislative hearing in March 2014 was a transformative moment. Legislators who had never before heard about lipodystrophy were close to tears. With the storybook and that powerful initial testimony as a springboard, we continued to gain traction throughout 2015 and 2016 - organizing community members, enlisting the support and expertise of respected medical professionals and healthcare agencies, engaging local and statewide media coverage, developing compelling messages and disseminating clear, concise fact sheets to legislators. We had three main messages we hammered away at:
- Cost is the foremost legislative concern with insurance mandates. We countered by demonstrating that lipodystrophy not only affects a very small number of long-term survivors, but also is a fixed and shrinking population. It is an historic problem. And the treatments, generally liposuction to remove excess fat and facial fillers to remedy wasting, are inexpensive. Here’s a postcard we delivered to all legislators:
- We always referred to lipodystrophy as a “disease” that requires medical care to counter the fallacy that treatments are “cosmetic.” Since when do we not treat a diagnosed disease?
- Refusal to cover lipodystrophy treatments is discrimination. Insurance companies cover restorative procedures for the consequences of other diseases, such as breast reconstruction and testicular replacement for cancer patients. We don’t let insurance companies say that’s cosmetic! Refusing to treat the consequences of lipodystrophy disease is unfair discrimination against people with HIV.
When we began this process, nobody believed we had a chance at passing this bill. We were fortunate to have champions in the legislature, Representative Sarah Peake and Senator Mark Montigny, who took up the cause and pushed for passage. The law will go into effect November 9 (“An Act Relative to HIV-Associated Lipodystrophy Syndrome Treatment,” Chapter 233 of the Acts of 2016).
To be sure, HIV/AIDS advocacy and service organizations have had unrelenting and crucial battles to fight over the decades: access to testing and treatment; prevention, including PrEP and clean needles; discrimination and stigma; and the shameful criminalization statutes that still exist in a majority of states, to name just a few. But I hope we can all agree that it is intolerable to let our longest term survivors of the HIV epidemic suffer from untreated medication side effects. Here’s hoping that the Massachusetts experience begins a national call to action to address this indefensible insurance discrimination.
Disclaimer: Guest blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the ADAP Advocacy Association, but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about public health-related issues and updates.