Saturday, September 22, 2007

Health Care Emerges As An Electoral Issue

All things apparently come up politics these days as the presidential campaign kicks into high gear. Health care is certainly no exception but the question among many LGBT activists remains: How does HIV and AIDS factor into this equation? Most quickly conclude the current administration's policy with regards to the epidemic in this country has failed as I detailed in this article for yesterday. The candidates on both sides of the aisle have, for the most part, failed to address the epidemic in their stump speeches and various health care proposals. An estimated 1.2 million people live with the virus in this country while more than half lack access to basic health care. The math arguably speaks for itself.

As health care continues to emerge as a dominant domestic issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, a coalition of activists and organizations across the country has called upon the federal government to reform its overall AIDS policies.

More than 100 HIV-prevention and public health agencies released a statement Sept. 18 calling on Washington to implement a "successful national AIDS strategy."

The document urges the federal government to increase funding for programs specific to gay men, people of color and others disproportionately affected by the virus. It calls for "ambitious and credible" prevention and treatment goals in addition to the expansion of research initiatives.

The Gay Men's Health Crisis and AIDS Action spearheaded the creation of the coalition to coincide with the campaign. The coalition distributed copies of its recommendations to candidates on both sides of the aisle last month, but the content became public the same day U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., unveiled her long-anticipated health care plan during a campaign stop in Iowa.

Clinton's proposal does not include AIDS-specific proposals, but campaign spokesperson Jin Chon told in an e-mail that the senator's plan reflects her commitment to fight the epidemic.

It "will be particularly important for people with HIV/AIDS," he wrote. "Hillary Clinton's plan will make sure that all Americans living with HIV and AIDS have access to the health insurance they need."

Not to be outdone by his Democratic rival, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina announced a number of specific recommendations earlier this week to fight the domestic AIDS epidemic. These include the expansion of Medicaid to cover people with HIV, the repeal on federally funded needle exchange programs and the creation of a Cabinet-level position to coordinate domestic efforts to reduce new infections among blacks and Latinos.

Robert Bank, chief operating officer for the Gay Men's Health Crisis, applauded these efforts. He added that the campaign provides an opportunity for his group and others to shine a renewed spotlight onto the epidemic.

"We saw this as a synergistic moment to catch the country's interest in AIDS once again, through demands to the presidential candidates to do for America what Congress requires of other countries," Bank told "It is critical to say to this new president that what we have is not good enough."

Nearly half the estimated 1.2 million people with HIV and AIDS in the United States lack access to health care. Bank added that a lack of mental health and other psycho-social services aggravate the problem.

"That's too high for a country that has absolute access to the best medication in the world to treat this disease," he said. "We are a country that has access to the best treatment for AIDS, and we have half a million people who are not getting it."

AIDS Action executive director Rebecca Haag, who is also a member of Clinton's LGBT advisory committee, echoed Bank. She applauded the Bush administration's efforts to combat the epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa and in other parts of the developing world. Haag quickly concluded, however, that the White House has largely failed to address the epidemic in the United States.

"We don't think we're doing a very good job in this country in addressing our own AIDS crisis," she said.

AIDS has remained a political hot potato since the Centers for Disease Control made the first diagnoses in New York and San Francisco in 1981. Clinton specifically addressed the epidemic's toll among young black women during a debate held at Howard University in Washington in June.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., opposes the Bush administration's abstinence-only approach to HIV and AIDS prevention. He has remained largely silent on how to specifically address the domestic AIDS epidemic.

A number of black LGBT activists remain critical of Obama's apparent overtures to the black church, the broader evangelical movement and other religious institutions. He raised more eyebrows in December with his appearance alongside GOP presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., at the annual Global Summit on AIDS and the Church in southern California.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, on the other hand, continues to address the AIDS epidemic on the campaign trail. He attended the dedication of the Wall-Las Memorias AIDS memorial in Los Angeles this month. Richardson, who created New Mexico's first commission to review state HIV and AIDS policies during his governorship, has also indicated he would appoint his vice president to lead the Presidential Advisory Commission on HIV and AIDS.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other Republican candidates have remained all but silent on the issue.

Haag said the candidates will continue to promote their health care proposals as the first caucuses and primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire draw closer. She remained adamant that HIV and AIDS should be part of any comprehensive plan.

"We are asking them to commit that under their presidency they will lead the nation to solve this crisis," Haag said.

Bank agreed.

"At a minimum, any presidential candidate who would be seriously considered for leading this country should address -- publicly -- the crisis of AIDS in the United States," he said. "If that person who has the privilege of leading this country talks about AIDS, then AIDS becomes a serious issue."

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