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National AIDS Strategy: AIDS groups appeal to Obama for help in fighting HIV/AIDS
  Experts hope for action within administration's first 100 days
Friday, November 28, 2008
Leaders of national AIDS organizations revealed this week their recommendations for moves President-elect Barack Obama and his administration can make during their first 100 days in office to fight HIV/AIDS in America.
In a letter, the leaders call for "a comprehensive and adequately funded response to the domestic AIDS epidemic in the United States," which Obama supported during the campaign.
"The purpose is to get renewed leadership for the domestic epidemic," said Carl Schmid, director of federal affairs for the AIDS Institute, a national public policy organization. "These are all things he can do on his own without turning to Congress. These are non-legislative actions that the agencies can do."
The AIDS in America plan calls for a national AIDS strategy that is "designed to lower HIV incidence, increase access to HIV care, and reduce racial disparities in the epidemic and integrate HIV with STD, viral hepatitis and TB programs at the local level."
Schmid, whose group was involved with drafting the recommendations, said it is a critical time to address the AIDS epidemic.
"The Centers for Disease Control announced last year that there are 56,000 new infections occurring each year, which is more than we thought," he said. "President Bush did a great job of giving attention to the global epidemic, and he's done some for the domestic epidemic. But a lot more can be done and some of his policies we do not agree with, such as policies that were not based on evidence."
Schmid said that more than half of all new infections occur among gays or men who have sex with men, and that those groups didn't get the attention they deserved from Bush. Schmid noted he hopes that will change under Obama.
"Obama has said that he wants to have a national plan, and with the economic crisis, we need to make sure that Obama and his people follow through on these promises," he said. "Spending money on prevention saves money in the future since you don't have to pay for health care and drugs for future cases."
Schmid noted that HIV funding has decreased across the last few years, so Obama's first budget would be "a good indicator of how much attention he will give to the epidemic."
Schmid and other AIDS organization leaders are hoping to meet with Obama's transition team to discuss what changes can be made as soon as the Democrat takes office.
"We heard that they got the letter and thanked us for it," Schmid said. "They said they would contact us with additional questions and we would like a meeting, but have not heard anything about it yet."
One program that Schmid hopes sees an increase in funding is the Ryan White Act, which provides medical care, antiretroviral treatments and counseling to people with HIV who would not otherwise have access to care. It also supports HIV testing to prevent the disease.
"There are more people being infected with HIV and the cost of health care is going up," Schmid said. "The Ryan White Act is a $2 billion program, and the proposed increase this year was a very small amount. We need more money since people are living longer with drugs and we have to keep supplying drugs and healthcare, but we're not seeing much of an increase in funding for care and treatment."
Also suggested in the plan is directing the CDC to develop prevention programs that target the communities and populations most at risk. AIDS in America suggests a universal health care reform initiative, supporting new research and eliminating federal policies that discriminate against people with HIV/AIDS.
The plan also calls for the secretary of Health & Human Services to "rapidly develop" regulations that implement the change in a law that allows people who are HIV positive to enter the United States as visitors or immigrants.
In July, Congress voted to repeal the HIV travel and immigration ban, but the bill's passage did not remove the ban in practice. To enact the repeal, HHS needs to rewrite its rules.
In a letter to the Washington Post in October, CDC Director Julie Gerberding said that revising the rule "takes time," and an interim solution has been implemented so that certain short-term, non-immigrant visas can be issued to people who are HIV-positive. Such visas do not publicly identify any traveler as HIV positive.
But Victoria Neilson, the legislative director at Immigration Equality in New York, said she's anxiously waiting "for HHS to issue regulations" that remove the final components of the ban.
"We haven't heard the CDC say on the record that they are working on it," she said. "After the bill passed, Immigration Equality wrote a letter to HHS that about 180 organizations signed, urging them to move quickly on lifting the ban. Secretary Michael Leavitt wrote back and said they are working on it."
Neilson said that she remains "hopeful that something will be coming imminently."
"This administration hopes to completely lift the ban, and we're hopeful it will happen in the next two months, before the current administration leaves power," she said. "If for some reason that doesn't happen by Jan. 20, it would be our first priority with the new administration."
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