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(TRENTON) – Legislation Assembly Democrats Celeste M. Riley, Craig J. Coughlin and Albert Coutinho sponsored to restore the income eligibility for New Jersey’s AIDS Drug Distribution Program to the level it was at before it was slashed back by Gov. Chris Christie was advanced Thursday by an Assembly panel.

The budget signed by the governor in June reduced eligibility for the AIDS Drug Distribution Program from 500 percent of the federal poverty level to 300 percent. The bill (A-3286) restores income eligibility levels to 500 percent of the federal poverty level retroactive to July 1, 2010.

“No one questions that we are in tough economic times, but the idea of cutting off AIDS patients from their drugs is inconceivable to me,” said Riley (D-Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem). “We must restrain spending, but we also must keep in mind that people’s lives and public health are put at risk with unwise cuts like this one. We need to restore a sense of compassion.”

“This program means life or death for many people,” said Coughlin (D-Middlesex). “Spending cuts are needed, but we cannot be inhumane in the decisions we make when lives are on the line. We also shouldn’t be making decisions that lead to higher medical costs when AIDS patients who lose their drugs grow sicker and require more expensive treatments.”

“This funding cut is, without exaggeration, a death sentence for the nearly 1,000 people who cannot afford to purchase AIDS medication on their own,” said Coutinho (D-Essex). “No one argues that we must reduce our budgetary spending, but that does not mean we can simply cut without a conscience. There is no question in my mind: this funding must be restored and we must find the money to balance the budget elsewhere.”

The sponsors said the Department of Health and Senior Services must achieve other savings and receive additional rebates for prescription drugs purchased by the program to provide the additional funding needed to restore income eligibility.

The bill was released by a vote of 8-4 from the Assembly Appropriations Committee. It now heads to the Speaker, who decides if and when to post it for a floor vote.