Achieving ‘universal access’ to antiretroviral HIV treatment (ART) in lower income and transitional settings is a global target. Yet, access to ART is shaped by local social condition and is by no means universal. Qualitative studies are ideally suited to describing how access to ART is socially situated. We explored systemic barriers to accessing ART among people who inject drugs (PWID) in a Russian city (Ekaterinburg) with a large burden of HIV treatment demand. We undertook 42 in-depth qualitative interviews with people living with HIV with current or recent experience of injecting drug use. Accounts were analysed thematically, and supplemented here with an illustrative case study. Three core themes were identified: ‘labyrinthine bureaucracy’ governing access to ART; a ‘system Catch 22’ created by an expectation that access to ART was conditional upon treated drug use in a setting of limited drug treatment opportunity; and ‘system verticalization’, where a lack of integration across HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and drug treatment compromised access to ART. Taken together, we find that systemic factors play a key role in shaping access to ART with the potential adverse effects of reproducing treatment initiation delay and disengagement from treatment. We argue that meso-level systemic factors affecting access to ART for PWID interact with wider macro-level structural forces, including those related to drug treatment policy and the social marginalization of PWID. We note the urgent need for systemic and structural changes to improve access to ART for PWID in this setting, including to simplify bureaucratic procedures, foster integrated HIV, TB and drug treatment services, and advocate for drug treatment policy reform.
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