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Cost-Effectiveness of Socioeconomic Support as Part of HIV Care for the Poor in an Urban Community-Based Antiretroviral Program in Uganda

Stella-Talisuna, Alamo PhD*; Bilcke, Joke PhD; Colebunders, Robert MD, PhD†,‡; Beutels, Philippe PhD

JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes: October 1st, 2014 - Volume 67 - Issue 2 - p e76–e83
doi: 10.1097/QAI.0000000000000280
Implementation and Operational Research: Epidemiology and Prevention

Background: Socioeconomic support reduced nonretention in a community-based antiretroviral therapy (ART) program in Uganda. However, resource implications of expanding socioeconomic support are large, and cost-effectiveness analysis can inform budget priorities. We compared the incremental benefits and costs of providing education, food, or both forms of support (dual support) with existing ART services from a health care provider's perspective.

Methods: Costs and outcome data were collected from a cohort of 2371 adult patients with HIV receiving education, food, or dual support from Reach Out Mbuya between 2004 and 2010. The primary outcome was averted loss to follow-up. The number of follow-up days was calculated for each patient along with accrued service and fixed program costs for the alternative forms of socioeconomic support in USD by standard costing methods. The socioeconomic support types were compared incrementally over the study period.

Results: After 7 years, 762 (33%) of the patients were loss to follow-up with 42% of them receiving food. In the presence of providing ART, education support was less costly and more effective than the alternatives. The average unit cost for education, food, and dual support were $237, $538, and $776, respectively. The average total annual costs were $88,643 for education, $538,005 for food, and $103,045 for dual support.

Conclusions: Compared with food or dual support, investing in education of the children of ART patients is less costly and more effective in improving patient retention. Reach Out Mbuya should embrace this paradigm shift and channel its resources more efficiently and effectively by focusing on education support.

*Executive Directors Office, Reach Out Mbuya HIV/AIDS Initiative, Kampala, Uganda;

Center for Health Economics Research & Modeling Infectious Diseases (CHERMID, Vaccine & Infectious Disease Institute [Vaxinfectio]), University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium; and

Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium.

Correspondence to: Alamo Stella-Talisuna, MD, Reach Out Mbuya HIV/AIDS Initiative, Kampala, Uganda+256 (e-mail:

The authors have no funding or conflicts of interest to disclose.

Received February 04, 2014

Accepted May 23, 2014

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Antiretroviral therapy (ART) has led to tremendous improvement in quality of life of people living with HIV (PLHIV)1–5 and is substantially more cost-effective today than it was a decade ago.6–9 However, lifelong medication adherence, frequent clinic visits for clinical monitoring, missed employment days, and out-of-pocket expenses pose major opportunity costs to poor PLHIV10–13 and are a major reason for loss to follow-up (LTFU) from ART programs in resource-limited settings.14–16 Despite their impact on patient retention, indirect costs are difficult to measure and are therefore often excluded in economic evaluations of ART leading to potential overestimation of cost-effectiveness ratios.6–8,11 Most of these indirect costs are influenced by the model of service delivery including the quality, fee for service, location of clinics, and comprehensiveness of the services.15–22 Alternative models of ART delivery that address the aforementioned barriers may improve patient retention and the cost-effectiveness of ART even further in the near future. However, their costs must be analyzed to determine which combination of interventions yields the greatest improvements in health at affordable costs.2–24

A model of care that integrates socioeconomic support (defined as financial and nonfinancial benefits offered to poor patients based on assessment of needs) as part of ART delivery has been shown to reduce mortality and LTFU in the Reach Out Mbuya HIV/AIDS initiative (ROM), a community-based ART program in Uganda.2,24,25 The resources required to expand this model of care are likely to be high given the growing need for socioeconomic support as part of HIV care for the poor.2,22,24,26 Furthermore, decisions to scale up socioeconomic support have been made in the absence of cost-effectiveness data, which seriously limits attempts to secure funds or to set priorities. An economic evaluation is therefore necessary to determine whether providing socioeconomic support to patients with HIV is worth scaling up compared with providing care and treatment. These questions have direct relevance to the expansion of socioeconomic support within ROM and similar ART programs funded by the United States Government through The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and will facilitate resource allocation and priority setting.

Using secondary cost data and retention outcomes from a cohort of patients receiving care from ROM,24 a cost-effectiveness analysis of socioeconomic support was conducted. We evaluated the food and education support programs, which constituted 70% and 26%, respectively, of socioeconomic support provided between 2001 and 2010.2,24 We compared the incremental benefits and costs of providing education support alone, food support alone, and both education and food support (dual support) when added onto ART. The study was approved by the institutional review boards of Makerere University School of Public Health and the National Council of Science and Technology, Uganda.

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Study Population

This study was conducted at ROM, an indigenous Ugandan Nongovernmental organization that has been extensively described before.2,24,25,27 In brief, ROM is one of the comprehensive ART programs in Kampala, Uganda. By March 2004, it was providing ART using the Ugandan Ministry of Health national guidelines; and by December 2010, it had cumulatively cared for nearly 10,000 patients. Most of the funding for care, treatment, and support is provided by PEPFAR but some ART and laboratory support is also provided by the Ministry of Health through The Global Fund to Fight Tuberculosis, AIDS, and Malaria. ROM provides a full range of HIV services including socioeconomic support, which is provided to the poor after a needs assessment. A “needs-most-gets-first” principle is applied in prioritizing socioeconomic support with individuals who score the highest vulnerability score index receiving support first.24,25,27 The primary beneficiary of socioeconomic support is an HIV-positive individual enrolled in ROM for care and treatment, who after the needs assessment receives socioeconomic support as an intervention to improve adherence and retention in care.24 The secondary beneficiaries are HIV-negative individuals in the same household who may also benefit from socioeconomic support.

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The Socioeconomic Support Interventions

Education Support

In 2002, ROM initiated an orphans and other vulnerable children (OVC) program majorly comprising school fees and psychosocial support. By 2007, the OVC program had expanded to include all the 7 core OVC program areas, ie, health care, education (school fees and scholastic materials), food (nutrition), legal, and child protection, shelter, economic empowerment, and psychosocial support.24 The underlying imperative for the program is household economic support to women receiving care and treatment from ROM. Women comprise more than 80% of ROM's patients with a significant proportion of them being either widowed or divorced. The impact of the social and economic effects of HIV on adherence in such vulnerable groups is significant.7,8,15,16,20,28–31 The supported patients are selected using scored economic indicators used to assign a vulnerability index score to their household.32–34 Initial support for the OVC program came from individuals, but funding markedly expanded through PEPFAR, which now funds more than 95% of the program.

More than 85% of the OVC funding is for education and psychosocial support, whereas 15% is distributed between food (10%) and other core program areas (5%). The focus of this evaluation will thus be education and psychosocial support referred to together as “education support” henceforth. Children of PLHIV who receive food or both food and education will be evaluated under the alternative interventions.

Children found eligible for education support are enrolled into collaborating preselected schools with consent of their parents/guardians. School fees and scholastic materials (uniforms, shoes bags, books, and pencils) are provided for each school term. Additionally, each child is visited at school by social workers who assess school attendance and performance and address any social issues that may affect school performance and completion rates. Furthermore, each child is visited at home by community health workers based on their health and prevailing socioeconomic situation, with the HIV-infected children being visited more often.27 Psychosocial support activities included individual counseling, peer-led support clubs, and play therapy.

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Food Support

The food support program was initiated in 2002 in collaboration with the World Food Program and targets food insecure households as a strategy to improve adherence to medication. Cumulatively, more than 2000 primary beneficiaries and more than 10,000 secondary beneficiaries have been served. The validated household Food Insecurity Access Scale is used to screen for food insecurity among eligible households.32,33 Food beneficiaries received monthly food rations according to household size. A household of 1–4 individuals receives 1.85 L of cooking oil, 12.4 kg of posho, 4.16 kg of beans, and 8.33 kg of corn soya blend (CSB); a household of 5–7 individuals receives 3.7 L of cooking oil, 25 kg of posho, 8.33 kg of beans, and 16.66 kg of CSB; and a household of 8+ individuals receives 5.5 L of cooking oil, 37.5 kg of posho, 25 kg of beans, and 50 kg of CSB.

Food is distributed from the community clinics and from within the communities for villages that are more than 5 km from the clinics.2,24,26 Patients continuously received food as long as they were in care until 2008 when a phase-out plan was implemented during which households were reassessed every 6 months. Those found to have recovered from food insecurity are replaced to allow more vulnerable beneficiaries to be supported.

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Dual Support

Both education and food support is given to households that are found very vulnerable based on assessment of needs. Typically, these households have unemployed HIV-positive adults who are too ill to work and take care of their children.

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Study Design

An empirical cost-effectiveness analysis was performed and is based on a cohort analysis that has been described previously.2,24 In brief, patients from this cohort were accrued from 3 community-based clinics managed by ROM. During the study period of May 2001 to May 2010, socioeconomic support was availed to all eligible patients in care.24 For the economic evaluation, patients who were no longer active in care by May 2004 were excluded as large-scale ART first became available at ROM in May 2004.

We compared the costs and outcomes between the 3 different types of socioeconomic support (education support only, food support only, or dual support) given to patients with HIV receiving services from ROM. The principal measure of effect is the averted number of cases LTFU. Mortality was not considered as an endpoint because the intervention groups were not comparable clinically, with the group receiving food support having lower CD4 counts and being more likely to be on ART than the education support group.24 The study adopts a health care provider perspective.

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Health Outcomes Data

The health outcome was the number of patients LTFU categorized by the type of socioeconomic support they received during the study period. Patients were classified as “LTFU” if they were enrolled with ROM but had not had contact with the facility for 90 days or more after their scheduled follow-up date and were not known to have died or transferred out to another facility.2,24,29,30 Patients were categorized as “active” if they were still continuing care at ROM and had had at least 1 contact with the facility during the 90 days before the end of the study follow-up period. Health outcomes were counted over the complete study follow-up period (May 2004–May 2010).

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Cost Data

Detailed cost data of socioeconomic services received by the patients during the study period were extracted from the computerized financial information systems supplemented by procurement records using standard microcosting methods and included the following:

  1. Cost per patient accrued over the total follow-up time was obtained for all patients for the alternative forms of socioeconomic support and included supplies and recurrent services (assessment cost, postdistribution costs, school visits, and psychosocial support). Additionally, cost per secondary beneficiary was calculated (cost per child per household), which provided information that was supplementary to our analytical focus, ie, their incremental cost per LTFU case averted.
  2. Patient-independent program costs were collected for each month as far as possible and divided into 2 categories: personnel costs and administrative costs.

Economic cost was computed as the true resource cost incurred rather than just the financial cost. Salary cost was recorded for all personnel contributing directly to implementing either education or food support services. In addition, cash compensation paid to workers for transport and overtime hours was computed. However, costs of administrative and other staff shared between the 2 socioeconomic support programs were excluded.

Costs were adjusted for inflation to financial year 2010 prices using the Bank of Uganda Consumer Price Index35,36 and were converted from Uganda shillings to USD (“$” henceforth) using the average exchange rate of 1$ to 2369 Uganda shillings for the year 2010.35,36

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Data Analysis

We developed a computer-based, numerical cost-effectiveness model (decision tree) implemented in Microsoft Excel. Calculated costs and health outcomes were used to estimate the incremental cost-effectiveness between the 3 alternative interventions when added onto the existing ART program. The total costs for each intervention consisted of the service costs for all the patients receiving that type of support for the complete duration of the follow-up period and the patient-independent fixed program costs. The total costs and health outcomes were scaled by the number of patients within each of the programs. Cost-effectiveness is portrayed as the net program cost divided by the net intended effect of one optional intervention compared with another. Thus, the 3 types of socioeconomic support were compared with each other using costs per LTFU case averted as a measure of technical efficiency.

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The patient outcomes are as shown in Figure 1. Of 2383 patients who received either education or food support, 12 had not been retained in care by the beginning of May 2004 and were excluded from the study. Thus, 2371 patients were evaluated. After 7 years of follow-up, 762 (33%) were LTFU with 42% of them being from the food support program. The average household size of the food beneficiaries was 6.6, therefore a total of 10,240 individuals received food either as primary or secondary beneficiaries. The education support program, on the other hand, targeted individual children, and an average of 1.07 children was supported per household, totaling 570 supported children belonging to 545 patients who were evaluated.



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Table 1 shows the discounted annual costs for the 3 intervention groups for the period 2004–2010. The average cost per patient through the study period or education support was $237, $538 for food support, and $776 for the dual support program. The average total annual costs were $88,643 for education support, $538,005 for food support, and $103,045 for the dual support program.



Table 2 shows the cost profile for the period 2004–2010. Overall, supplies accounted for the highest proportion of the program costs across all 3 interventions with an average of 72%, 96%, and 86% for the education support, food, and dual programs, respectively. Personnel costs accounted for less than 10% of the program costs across all years and were independent of the number of patients enrolled in each program.



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Incremental Costs and Cost-Effectiveness

LTFU in the education support arm was 12% at a unit cost of $831 over the study period. Whereas, the food program lost 42% of the beneficiaries to follow-up at a unit cost of $2065. The food and dual support programs are both dominated by the education support program because they are more costly and have more patients LTFU (Table 3).



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The cost-effectiveness analysis showed that in the presence of providing ART, education support is a less costly and more effective intervention compared with food or the dual support programs. We could not assess the counterfactual, that is, the cost-effectiveness of education compared with no socioeconomic support at all, because socioeconomic support is the current standard of care at ROM.2,24 In the absence of a “no intervention” or control option, our study focuses on technical efficiency (ie, comparing the program options with each other) and not on allocative efficiency (ie, comparing these program options with any other health care intervention). This implies that we did not need to convert the averted LTFU cases into (quality-adjusted or disability-adjusted) life years to judge which of the 3 options is most efficient. A consequence is that we can compare these costs and effects with other programs averting HIV LTFU cases but not with programs impacting other outcomes. To enable the latter, we would need to convert each averted LTFU case in a more generic health outcome (such as DALYs).

Socioeconomic status may influence the diagnosis, prevention, and management of HIV as a consequence of differing access to medical services, a differing standard of service once accessed, late referral to treatment or specialist care, differing compliance with interventions, and differing outcomes of interventions. Education support is associated with LTFU through opportunity cost to pay for transport for clinic appointments or motivation to continue care in the interest of a child's education.37–40 Among PLHIV, food insecurity inhibits ART initiation, retention in care, and ART adherence37–40 and leads to worse virologic and immunologic outcomes,40–44 increased hospitalizations, opportunistic infections,40–43 and mortality.45–49 In turn, HIV/AIDS worsens food insecurity by eroding economic productivity,50–53 reducing social support due to HIV stigma,52 and increasing medical expenses.7,13,19–21,26,51,52 This cycle is particularly devastating in Uganda, where AIDS is the leading cause of mortality15,16,45–49 and where food insecurity affects nearly three-quarters of PLHIV.40–42,51,52

Our study is the first economic evaluation of food and education support added onto an ART program within the Ugandan context and may have implications for scaling up these services. The high costs of the food program in particular have direct implications for its scale-up and sustainability. Overall, the unit cost of education support remained stable through the study period with an average unit cost of $237. In addition to being higher than the unit cost for education support across all the years, there were also wide inter-year variations in unit cost per household of food reflecting the higher influence of inflation on the cost of food inputs, which accounts for 96% of the program costs. The unit cost for the dual program was $882, making it a much more expensive program to fund.

ROM will have to seek higher efficiencies in the food program by identifying savings across the range of costs without compromising the quality. It is unlikely that ROM can improve efficiency through improved personnel productivity, which only accounted for on average 1.8% of the food program costs and 9.9% of the education program costs. The low personnel costs are explained by the task-shifting model and the use of community health workers, whose health care roles are integrated at the household level to include assessments, monitoring of OVCs, and food monitoring leading to gain in efficiencies. Hiring from within the community boosts the community capacity while reinforcing a deep sense of community ownership.10,26,27,54–57 The relatively low psychosocial support costs reflected in the dual program could be explained by the fact that these households are the most vulnerable and their children are engaged in household chores with no time to attend psychosocial support activities.

With improvement in quality of life of PLHIV, many will return to employment or become more productive.2 Major gains in cost-effectiveness in the food program are likely to derive from shorter durations of support or a reduction in the food rations to households. In addition, there is an emerging consensus on the need to scale down on food support and, where feasible, combine food support with livelihood strengthening, which is increasingly regarded as essential for improving food security and resilience over the long-term.39,44,58 ROM needs to embrace this paradigm shift.

Coverage is a crucial contextual factor for the cost-effectiveness of interventions. We compared the interventions in light of the current supply of services. Although education support was found to be cost-effective, it has a much lower coverage per patient than the food support program (9% vs 21%). This is a neglected opportunity that ROM should address.

This analysis is not without limitations. We used LTFU as a measure of health effect. Several studies1,3,4,16,20 have reported high mortality among LTFU. However, a tracing study3 found only 11% mortality among our LTFU patients, which is attributed to the presence of an organized community system of care that facilitates early diagnosis, recognition, and management of side effects and prompt referrals. Additionally, same-day tracing of LTFU patients ensures that those who have died are documented within few days of a missed clinic appointment.

We chose a narrow definition of costs, focused exclusively on the direct variable costs of providing services, and excluded costs associated with the use of existing infrastructure. ROM is predominantly a health facility and socioeconomic support that comprises less than 15% of the HIV care and treatment budget. In addition, the interventions being compared would incur the same costs on infrastructure further justifying the exclusion of these costs. We did not include the indirect costs of transport and time because we considered them negligible. Clinics are located within the communities and more than 90% of the patients are unemployed.2,24,25

Overall, only 16% of ROMs patients received food support, which in addition to retention, benefits the household through short-term child survival, an aspect that may improve the cost-effectiveness of food support. However, the analysis did not consider the food program's phase-out strategy, which was implemented in 2008. This would ambitiously allow twice the number of households to be supported over the same duration hence reducing the unit cost per household to $269, which is still more expensive than the education program. In contrast, education support has a long-term impact on child survival. We did not include long-term gains in household productivity associated with education support, and therefore it is likely that this aspect would have also shown greater cost-effectiveness of the intervention. Additionally, OVC community-based programming helps to reduce stigma and discrimination and creates an enabling environment for people infected and affected by HIV to access services. By addressing socioemotional effects of the epidemic, OVC programs reduce the likelihood of children and adolescents moving from being affected by the epidemic to being infected. These disregarded benefits make the OVC program even more attractive.

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Socioeconomic differentials in health are widely recognized with individuals of lower socioeconomic status having a higher risk for LTFU compared with those of higher socioeconomic status. For our patient cohort enrolled in the ART program, we found that investing in education support is less costly and more effective (fewer LTFU) than investing in food support. The findings strongly suggest the need for a paradigm shift by ROM to channel resources more predictably, efficiently, and effectively to support its response capacity to the education support program. This paradigm shift would better meet the direct, short-term retention needs for patients in care while also laying the foundation for long-term sustainability of households through poverty alleviation.

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cost-effectiveness; education; food; dualsupport

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