Calls inaction ‘unconscionable’ as Black people around the world are ‘fighting for their lives; the same is true here at home

Former President Bill Clinton addressed the 30th anniversary meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists yesterday, urging thousands of African American media professionals to report on the healthcare challenges we face here and abroad. Speaking about the domestic AIDS epidemic, and its disproportionate impact on African Americans, President Clinton urged the nation to renew its commitment to stopping HIV’s spread.

"We thought the problem went away and we got out of prevention," he warned. "We need to make a new effort in America to make sure the people who are at risk for AIDS know they are."

Washington lawmakers now working on next year’s federal HIV/AIDS budget should heed his warning. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this summer that more people are living with HIV/AIDS today than ever before — more than one million. Half of those people are African Americans, though we are only 13 percent of the population.

Yet, the White House’s fiscal year 2006 budget proposal cuts funding for the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention by $4 million. It cuts the CDC’s overall budget by almost 10 percent. Meanwhile, funding for scientifically-discredited abstinence-only sex education programs in our nation’s schools has doubled since 2001. It should surprise no one that the epidemic is growing rather than shrinking.

Clinton described his international AIDS work in detail to the NABJ gathering. By negotiating with pharmaceutical manufacturers and Western donor nations, the Clinton Foundation has made remarkable progress on lowering the cost of anti-HIV medications in several poor countries around the world. Declaring that this work has proven what’s possible, he called rich nations to task. "These people are fighting for their lives and fighting for the lives of their children," he said. "It is unconscionable if we don’t do more."

President Clinton is exactly right. But he could have said the same about low-income people living with HIV right here at home. The AIDS care safety net that we built throughout the 1990s is in near tatters today. As science does its job, finding new treatments to prolong lives, policymakers are failing to do their part. We give up on prevention and allow an estimated 40,000 new infections a year to persist. And then, when the care programs have a larger burden to carry than ever, we stop supporting them too.

Since 2001, funding for the Ryan White CARE Act — the primary vehicle for federal funding of HIV/AIDS treatment and care programs — has remained largely flat, even as thousands of new people a year enter the system. One key portion of the CARE Act has actually been cut. As a result, cities around the country report creating waiting lists for services and altogether ending vital programs like drug addiction treatment and support groups.

President Bush has now proposed a new requirement that all but a small sliver of the CARE Act money be spent on direct medical expenses. But as care providers all over the world testify, what good are meds if you have no transportation to go to the doctor, no food to take them with or a drug addiction that overshadows all other health considerations?

Moreover, the White House’s proposal is a strange fit with its efforts — now supported by Congress — to cut Medicaid spending by $10 billion over the next five years, even as we would offer another $106 billion in tax cuts over the same period. To make these drastic cuts possible, the nation’s governors have proposed a "reform" that would allow Medicaid to begin charging co-pays to people already living at and below the poverty level.

The budget Congress is currently working on would also leave the AIDS Drug Assistance Programs – – which fund meds for uninsured, low-income people – – continuing to flounder. At last count, in March, 18 states had created waiting lists, capped enrollment or limited what treatments were available. Fifteen states offered fewer than 10 of the 16 medications the U.S Public Health Service has listed as highly recommended for AIDS treatment.

That’s right. People living with HIV right here in the richest nation on earth do not have access to treatments that we know will keep them alive. They, like their developing world counterparts, are fighting for their lives and the lives of their children. Our failure to help them is just as unconscionable.

Learn More at BlackAIDS.org