HIV is having a greater impact on the African-American community than on any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the rate of HIV infection in African Americans is eight times that of whites. Although African Americans represent only 12 percent of the overall population, the CDC reports that in 2010 they accounted for an estimated 44 percent of all HIV infections in people age 13 or older.
Thursday’s HIV/AIDS Braintrust began with a powerful speech by Phil Willson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. Although he acknowledged the many advancements in healthcare that have been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, Willson asked, “Are those tools enough? We still have an epidemic that in many ways has not changed.” He concluded by saying, “We are talking about ending it [the AIDS epidemic), but for whom?”
In his opening remarks, Douglas Brooks, director of the Office of National AIDS policy, detailed current and developing policies on HIV/AIDS. As President Obama’s lead AIDS advisor, Brooks oversees the implementation of the national HIV/AIDS strategy and guides policies across federal agencies. In speaking both of his life and history with the disease, Brooks emphasized the importance of maintaining a united front. HIV, he pointed out, affects people of all kinds; it is not racially or sexually specific.
The floor was opened for both a teaching and learning discussion on the HIV epidemic and its prevalence in the African-American community. The session consisted of two panels: The first addressed the protection of access to HIV drugs and services, and the second detailed the intersection of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Ryan White program. Moderators and panelists consisted of pioneers and figureheads in the fight against HIV/AIDS, including Del. Donna Christensen, former Rep. Barbara Lee, Kyle Murphy of the National Minority AIDS Counsel, Nancy Bernstine of the National AIDS Housing Coalition, and Naina Khanna of the Positive Women’s Network.
In the wake of the Affordable Care Act, panelists indicated that health disparities and inequities have become more prevalent. While many Americans, including some who are infected with AIDS, now have insurance for the first time in their lives, they are also facing challenges in the cost of medications. Panelists said Medicare and Medicaid expansion is critical in increasing access to preventive care for persons both infected and at risk for HIV. Additional barriers to care include provider education, the stigma of the disease and preexisting conditions. The question, the panelists agreed, is why these barriers still exist.
The Ryan White Program, federally funded by the Health and Resources Services Administration, works with cities, states and community-based organizations to provide HIV-related services. Ministering to more than half a million people annually, the program assists consumers with both insufficient healthcare and finances.
Toni Young, executive director of the Community Education Group, emphasized the need for community AIDS organizations, particularly those that serve African Americans, to restructure and rebuild. She said that as a result of reissued government funds, her organization has lost 19 community outreach workers. Just as the government has restructured, she said, so must the African-American community.
The battle, the panel concluded, needs to be fought on several fronts. The African-American community needs to recognize and refocus the Ryan White program, advocate for additional drug coverage, and urge their congressional representatives to push for Medicare and Medicaid expansion.