By Keith R. Green, MSW
I recently spent some time on the Capitol Hill for the first time in my new position as director of federal affairs for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC). With Congress in the midst of one of the most heated budget debates of my generation, and the health care safety net for our most disadvantaged citizens on the chopping block to balance the budget, I was in no way confused about the political climate (or rather storm) that I was walking into.
HIV disproportionately impacts our most disadvantaged citizens and the fight of an HIV advocate is, at its core, a battle on behalf of the poor. Poverty is one of the primary driving forces of the epidemic. As a result, many people living with HIV/AIDS rely on government-funded programs simply to survive.
With that in mind, the key to my preparation for meetings with the Illinois delegation was to personalize the problem. I strategized with Donna Crews, a Capitol Hill veteran working with AIDS United who accompanied me on my visits. There’s not a congressional district in the state that is not impacted by HIV (or by poverty for that matter). Thirty years after the first reports of the effects of the virus that we’ve come to know as HIV, and 15 years after the development of life-saving protease inhibitors, not a single district within Illinois reported less than 10 new AIDS diagnosis in 2011.
I needed to stress to our lawmakers that HIV and AIDS are equally preventable. HIV-negative people need access to information about their risks and to evidence-based tools that can help them to remain uninfected. Ironically, HIV-positive people need access to the same things, with the primary evidence-based tool needed being antiretrovirals.
After making the case that HIV exists in all of our backyards, I presented our representatives with recent data that suggest that treatment with antiretrovirals significantly decreases the likelihood of the HIV-positive partner transmitting the virus to his or her partners, making the strongest argument for the support of ADAP that I’ve ever been able to make.
I should be clear that in a number of the congressional offices, particularly those who represent districts within Chicago, I didn’t have to work very hard at all to make this case. In fact, one member is considering circulating a letter to our governor in support of ADAP, and another (Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-IL) has stated that she will send a letter regardless of what any other office does.
At the end of the day, the case for supporting ADAP – coupled with a brief snapshot of what HIV looks like in each member’s respective district – was strong enough to engage all of the member offices in some serious dialogue about HIV in Illinois.
In no other office outside of those representing districts within Chicago was this more apparent than in my meeting with Melissa Connolly in Representative Jerry Costello’s (D-IL) office. Rep. Costello represents East St. Louis, the region with the highest burden of HIV cases after the Chicago area. Melissa’s expressions during our meeting gave away both her shock and concern at hearing such alarming statistics.
Luke Hatzis in Congressman Peter Roskam’s (R-IL) office is a true science buff, knowledgeable about cutting-edge scientific advances on many health issues including HIV. He was surprised to learn exactly how the congressman’s district is impacted by HIV, and pledged support for HIV/AIDS related issues in any way that he can.
In high school, Laura Finch in Rep. Randy Hutlgren’s (R-IL) office worked on a project that helped to bring attention and support to orphans in African countries who lost their parents to AIDS. While she is clear about how HIV impacts us all, she’s also clear about her boss’ conservative views on opposing issues such as comprehensive sex education in schools.
While still strategizing in my head about how to engage more conservative lawmakers who likely share Hultgren’s views, Representative Bobby Schilling (R-IL) said something that set the tone for the rest of my visits and became my biggest take-away from my time on the Hill - “HIV is a red, white, and blue issue.”
At the end of the day, whether we are infected or not, HIV affects us all. Geographic boundaries are simply lines on paper; there is no real division among us. We are forced to interact with one another, regardless of how much we’d like to separate ourselves. We’re all serviced within the same healthcare system (at different levels depending on our ability to pay, of course, but the same system nonetheless). We all need access to information and evidenced-based interventions to make us into and keep us healthy so that we can live our best lives and contribute to our country as taxpayers. If more than one million Americans are personally impacted by HIV, we are all impacted.
My meetings wrapped up with a conversation about how Illinois is hard at work developing a statewide operational plan for the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. Each of the members of the Illinois congressional delegation (or their staff) expressed sincere interest about how the implementation of the Strategy will look in their districts specifically, and I vowed to keep them in the loop with respect to progress. Congressman Mike Quigley’s (D-IL) office has even agreed to circulate a letter to the Governor on behalf of the entire delegation in full support of the Strategy’s implementation.
What comes next? District visits. AFC will be working over the summer to meet these same Representatives in their district offices, with constituents living with HIV, to hammer home the point that HIV is a “red, white, and blue issue” in their own back yards.