The nonprofit’s website advertises walk-in access to PEP, a drug which can prevent HIV if taken within 72 hours of exposure. Patients report being told to look elsewhere.
On Friday, August 17, Fort Greene resident Spencer Schaff tweeted at Planned Parenthood in frustration.
“@PPFA I’m trying to help a friend access PEP in NYC and have been told by multiple staff that you can’t walk in for PEP at NYC clinics and there are no appointments today,” Schaff tweeted.
PEP, which stands for post-exposure prophylaxis, is available by prescription to people who think they may have been exposed to HIV. The antiretroviral medication can prevent HIV infection, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, “PEP must be started as soon as possible to be effective—and always within 72 hours of a possible exposure.”
Schaff, a public health specialist who has worked in HIV prevention, was following up after a friend reported being unable to get PEP from a Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn. Schaff’s friend said she called the PPNYC phone line and was told Planned Parenthood does not offer walk-in appointments for PEP, and that no appointments were available on that day.
After calling the phone line herself and speaking with three different staff members, Schaff met with the same result. When she asked for an alternative, Schaff says she was told to call the Health Department or go to an emergency room.
“When people are trying to access PEP, they’re in a state of crisis,” Schaff said. “They think they’ve been exposed to HIV. They’re panicking and they have a limited amount of time.”
A PPNYC press release dated March 22, 2018, says all five NYC Planned Parenthood clinics offer PEP on a walk-in basis, or through same-day appointments. The PPNYC website prominently features a banner which says, “We Now Offer PEP”.
On Tuesday, I called the PPNYC hotline and asked for PEP. I was told that despite what the PPNYC website says, the five NYC clinics do not offer walk-ins for the drug. The staffer confirmed this information with her supervisor, then offered to make me an appointment in September. Eventually, she found an open appointment that afternoon at the clinic in Long Island City.
In a statement, PPNYC Communications Coordinator Senti Sojwal said, “The information that you and others received is not correct. We do offer PEP to same-day and walk-in patients for this time-sensitive service. We are working with our call center to ensure that this is corrected through re-training of all of the staff.”
This isn’t the first time there have been issues surrounding access to PEP in the city. After protests in 2013 from AIDS action groups like Act Up, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) launched a public information campaign to raise awareness about PEP and its pre-exposure equivalent, PrEP, drugs designed to prevent HIV infection in high risk populations when taken prior to HIV exposure. The city’s website now lists clinics where uninsured people can access PEP free of charge, and a 24/7 hotline which connects people who think they may have been exposed to HIV with PEP providers.
Schaff says awareness is vital, but only half the battle.
“It’s important that people know PEP exists, but it’s equally important that providers know how to prescribe it,” she said.