Sunday, October 14, 2007

POZ Magazine Article on Presidential Candidates and HIV/AIDS

Nicole Joseph wrote the following piece for POZ Magazine

Will the 2008 U.S. presidential hopefuls commit to fighting HIV/AIDS? (And how you can encourage them to care.)

On September 18, former Senator John Edwards became the first 2008 presidential candidate to announce a plan to fight HIV/AIDS in the United States and abroad. Activists and people living with HIV applauded Edwards's plan—which would provide universal access to health care for HIV-positive Americans by 2012. It would also create a national strategy to fight AIDS that offers all people equal access to care and bases prevention efforts on science rather than political ideology. The HIV community has long awaited any sign of support from those vying to become this country's future leader. "We're hoping that all the candidates put out as detailed a plan as Edwards has," says Christine Campbell, director of national advocacy and organizing at Housing Works, a New York-based AIDS service group.

In an election year when national health care is a front-burner issue, one would think that addressing the AIDS pandemic would be a priority on every candidate's platform. But the topic has been noticeably absent from initial debates and public forums. Even though Senator Hillary Clinton said in June that “If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country,” her recently released health care plan made no specific provisions for addressing the concerns of HIV-positive black women, let alone the rest of the HIV community. Rebecca Haag, executive director of AIDS Action, says, "[With] more than 1.7 million HIV infections [to date] and over half a million deaths in the domestic AIDS epidemic, our government still does not have a comprehensive plan to respond effectively." The virus continues to infect tens of thousands of new people a year and has 1.2 million in its grip in the U.S. alone.

What made Edwards speak out about AIDS? Was it intense political pressure delivered in recent weeks by watchdog groups who highlighted each presidential candidate’s commitment, or lack thereof, to the AIDS fight? Was it the call to action ( delivered to all presidential hopefuls by more than 100 organizations fighting HIV just days before Edwards released his plan? Was it the questionnaire posed to each candidate by the Campaign to End AIDS (C2EA)? Or was it Larry Frampton, a 46-year-old HIV-positive man, who traveled to one of Edwards’s campaign stops in Iowa?

Frampton waited hours to grab a chance to speak with the senator, eventually making his way to the front of the crowd and asking Edwards when he planned to post his domestic and global AIDS policy. Frampton then told Edwards that he'd been living with HIV for 18 years. Senator Edwards gave Frampton a hug and said, "We have a lot of work to do."

Frampton’s move, known as “bird-dogging” (which he describes as "getting people organized to ask the candidates the same question over and over again until they actually answer"), is one thing HIV-positive people can do to voice their concerns to the candidates. And, depending on the candidate’s response, sometimes the influence moves in both directions: Frampton says that his encounter with Edwards has him "definitely leaning" toward voting for Edwards.

“Every time I have bird-dogged and every time I have told a candidate that I'm a person living with HIV, they at least listen, and most of the time, they're more apt to listen to someone who's got a story to tell," says Frampton. "And so as a person living with HIV, you've got an opportunity to get out there and tell your story, and maybe get them to do some action on some things."

Across the country other members of the AIDS community are becoming more vocal about their expectations of the candidates. In Iowa, there is a statewide group—Iowans for AIDS Action—working together to encourage the candidates to adopt plans to fight the epidemic in the U.S. and around the world. The network of people living with HIV, religious leaders, researchers, medical and undergraduate students and AIDS service providers are living proof of the notion that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. “It doesn’t take a specially trained activist or political junkie [to make a difference],” says Michael Kink, legislative council for Housing Works. “It’s on all of us to make sure that the presidential candidates address [HIV/AIDS] clearly and in a straightforward manner.”

Whether the pressure on candidates comes from one individual, like Frampton, or from a larger, united perspective, one thing is evident: AIDS activists are not content to stand quietly by as the other candidates ignore their issues. And the broad, sweeping plans of the past aren't welcome in the 2008 election. They want specifics. Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) recently announced her recommendation for a health plan that would require every U.S. citizen to have health insurance. While this would inevitably benefit HIV-positive people, members of the AIDS community are still waiting to hear her answers to the tougher questions. For example: How much funding will be allocated to prevent and treat HIV and when can we expect to see it? "General health care plans don't necessarily address the specifics of what's needed to actually end the epidemic," says Housing Works' Campbell. "Anyone who presents a plan needs to be able to provide specific details."

A good way to educate yourself about key issues affecting the HIV community is to review the points put forth by AIDS Action’s call to action for a national strategy to fight AIDS ( Even if you don’t plan to try to bird-dog yourself, you can lend your support by signing the call to action demanding that candidates commit to a national AIDS strategy.

The Campaign to End AIDS (C2EA) site examines the candidates' stances on HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care. It is another great place to bring yourself up to speed so that you can be prepared to speak with candidates, write to politicians or just know who to vote for. AIDSvote organizers’ recent questionnaire surveyed the candidates' positions on a variety of issues. The topics ranged from "abstinence only" prevention programs to the Early Treatment for HIV Act (ETHA), a domestic initiative that would allow HIV-positive people who are not disabled to access Medicaid. So far, only Senator Edwards, Governor Bill Richardson (D-N. M.) and Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have responded to the questionnaire. "We've got a team of C2EA activists fanning out to call the campaigns and get in some more questionnaires," says Kink. "It’s important to reach out to all the candidates in both parties."

Reaching the candidates, however, means more than just sending petitions and questionnaires. It takes a personal touch, a Larry Frampton, to move a person to action. That's why provides a detailed guide “Bird-dogging 101,” to help you make a difference. With plans to launch an updated site soon, will also offer a calendar containing information on the candidates' campaign stops so that members of the HIV/AIDS community can meet them—face to face—at the front lines.

If you’re not able to intersect candidates on the presidential campaign trail soon, you could plan a trip for next spring, a critical time in the ’08 presidential race, to attend AIDSWatch, sponsored by the National Association of People With AIDS. The annual event offers another direct avenue for lobbying those who make policy. AIDSWatch is scheduled for April 2008 and will bring hundreds of AIDS advocates from across the country to Washington, DC, to discuss AIDS funding and programming with elected officials.

Christine Campbell says that the community shouldn’t wait around for the candidates to speak out about the epidemic, and suggests that they should educate themselves about the issues and take a proactive approach to politics. "Write [to politicians], go to their events, and when there's an opportunity to specifically ask them questions, ask them to address specific issues, like whether they support lifting the ban on syringe-exchange programs; if they're willing to commit $50 billion in resources to HIV and AIDS; if they will develop a national strategy to actually end AIDS in the United States; and if they'll support their health care workers abroad," she says. "If we can educate people [in the HIV-positive community] about the specific policy points, when they go to [political] events, they can ask [politicians] directly 'will you do this'?"

And maybe some other candidates will finally respond – to your face, to your story and to your inescapable reality of living with HIV in a country whose future leaders seem reluctant to face the epidemic they will inherit.


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