AIDS funding cuts protested

As HIV rates skyrocket, groups combine resources to engage community, legislators

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: March 6, 2010 in News

Originally published: Feb. 25, 2010, 1:19 p.m.
Updated: March 6, 2010, 12:17 p.m.

CHARLOTTE — A coalition of LGBT leaders, HIV/AIDS service providers and others are combining resources to plan an advocacy strategy for recent cuts in the state’s AIDS drug assistance program (ADAP) for low-income individuals living with HIV/AIDS.

State AIDS and STD director Jacquelyn Clymore addresses a Charlotte strategy meeting on recent ADAP cuts.

State AIDS and STD director Jacquelyn Clymore addresses a Charlotte strategy meeting on recent ADAP cuts.

The North Carolina AIDS Action Network (NCAAN), State Healthcare Access Research Project (SHARP) and Equality North Carolina (ENC), along with several other organizations and leaders, held strategy meetings in Raleigh and Charlotte Feb. 25 and 26. The groups plan to take future action on the topic and engage both community members and state legislators.

Rebecca Mann, community organizer for Equality North Carolina, attended the meeting.

“This is a public health crisis,” she told qnotes. “Anytime something like this comes up we feel passionately about working on it. LGBT rights groups have worked a lot for folks with HIV/AIDS. We want to make sure we’re representing all North Carolinians whenever we can.”

The network of groups and leaders met in Charlotte and Raleigh. They’ll lay out a strategy to combat cuts to the state ADAP program and a recent cap on enrollment.

In January, officials with the the N.C. Department of Health’s HIV/STD Prevention and Care Branch announced ADAP enrollment would be capped at current levels. The cap went into effect on Jan. 22. Those already enrolled continue to receive financial assistance needed to purchase life-saving HIV/AIDS medicines. But the waiting list for new clients has done nothing but grow. As of Feb. 24, more than 120 had been placed on the list.

State AIDS and STD director Jacquelyn Clymore told those at the Charlotte gathering that North Carolina’s waiting list would soon grow so long it would be the second longest in the nation.

About 4,400 people had been enrolled in ADAP this year, compared to only 4,000 this time last year. Although the program has been budgeted $11 million, that amount is about half what had been previously allotted.

Clymore told qnotes that public and elected officials need to start treating the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a real public health crisis. She said some are beginning to grasp the concept, but more education is still needed.

“A lot of education still needs to be done for lots of people, not just the legislature,” she said. “Why does this program matter? How are we going to support it?”

Debbie Warren, executive director of Charlotte’s Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN), said the strategy meetings will be an important step toward community awareness and involvement.

“We want to educate, encourage and equip the HIV positive community to engage in advocacy activities around the current ADAP crisis so that funds can be released to cover the medications that people need to stay healthy,” Warren said via email.

She said desperate action is needed now.

“The waiting list is going to grow if we don’t exert pressure on legislators and others to find the monies needed to alleviate this situation,” she said.

The push for continued funding of programs like ADAP comes at no better a time. Recently, new figures on HIV infection rates were released in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. In the county, newly reported HIV/AIDS cases in 2007 were charted in 44.9 out of every 100,000 persons, constituting a 54 percent jump since 1999. Statistics collected by state officials for the same year indicated a rate of 52.8 per 100,000 people.

Mecklenburg County Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts has said the numbers are alarming, and rank Charlotte along with major metropolises like New York and Los Angeles.

The CDC estimates the number of reported AIDS (not including HIV) cases in 2007 were rated at 15 per 100,000 people in Los Angeles County and 15.7 per 100,000 people in the Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord metropolitan area. New York City’s rate was much higher, coming in at 27.1.

HIV/AIDS incidence rates (counting both HIV and AIDS infections and diagnoses) came in at 38 per 100,000 in Los Angeles County — more than 15 percent less than Mecklenburg County’s estimation for the same year. Closer to home, newly reported cases of HIV/AIDS in Atlanta ranked at 42.7 per 100,000 people. In Nashville the rate was 39 per 100,000 people.

Additionally, Mecklenburg County has the highest HIV/AIDS rates across the state. In Wake County, the 2007 newly reported HIV/AIDS rate was 26.7. Durham County came in at 29.2 and Guilford at 35.4.

Donna Smith, an epidemiology specialist with the Mecklenburg County Department of Health, told qnotes it is important to look closely and cautioned against attempting to directly compare numbers in cities across state lines.

“We need to make sure that we are comparing the same things, i.e., that we are comparing HIV disease rates with HIV disease rates or AIDS rates with AIDS rates,” Smith said in an email. “HIV disease case rates include persons infected with HIV and persons who have progressed to AIDS (i.e., AIDS are a subset of HIV disease cases). Therefore it is not accurate to rank cities or states using two distinctly different rates (i.e. we should not rank cities/states using the HIV disease rate of one compared to the AIDS case rate of another).”

And while the face of AIDS has slowly changed since the intitial epidemic in the 1980s, men who have sex with men (MSM) continue to bear the burden of HIV/AIDS. Statewide, most (39 percent) new HIV/AIDS diagnoses were attributed to MSM, compared to Mecklenburg County’s 44 percent.

The North Carolina AIDS Action Network will plan for a lobby day and other action

days on funding cuts and other issues later this year. : :

This article appears in the March 6-March 19 print edition.