September 30, 2010 at 7:48 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
AIDS groups stage White House protest

AIDS activists protest at the White House with empty pill bottles Wednesday. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

About 50 AIDS activists carried signs made with empty pill bottles in front of the White House Wednesday in a protest over what they say is a failure by President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress to allocate emergency funds for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program known as ADAP.

The activists, led by the national AIDS advocacy groups Housing Works and AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said the pill bottles represent the more than 3,200 people in nine states currently on waiting lists to receive life-saving AIDS drugs.

“These are pill bottles that need to be filled with prescriptions,” said Christine Campbell, Housing Works’ vice president for national advocacy and organizing.  “Over 3,000 people are on these waiting lists. These represent lives,” She said.

Campbell and Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, called on the White House and Congress to immediately approve a supplemental funding allocation of $101 million, which they said was needed to eliminate the waiting lists before the end of the year.

Other groups that participated in the White House protest included ADAP Advocacy Association, Campaign to End AIDS, and Community Access National Network.

Organizers crafted the signs by attaching the pill bottles to poster boards to form words that spelled out the names of nine states with ADAP waiting lists and slogans such as “ADAP Saves Lives” and “Wait Lists = Death.”

As tourists and passersby stood on the sidewalk in front of the White House, several of the protesters spoke to a small crowd that gathered to observe the demonstration.

“I am one of those patients that are on these waiting lists,” said Rick Lanza, who traveled from Ohio to participate in the protest. “I have had medication through ADAP since 1997 and this year my medication has been cut off,” he said.

“Without these medications, I’m going to die, and I’m not ready to,” he said.

In a news conference on Tuesday, three AIDS patients joined Campbell, Weinstein and officials with other AIDS groups in describing their fears of contracting AIDS-related illnesses that could threaten their lives if waiting lists force them off their medications.

“I have no idea where I’m going to get my mediation in November,” said Jacksonville, Fla., resident Jeffrey Voyles, who told of how state officials informed him he would likely be placed on an ADAP waiting list.

“My [viral load] numbers have been undetectable since I’ve started the medication and right now I have a lot of fear about becoming resistant from the medications that I’ve been on for four years,” he said.

Voyles was referring to warnings by AIDS doctors that interrupting a regimen of anti-retroviral drugs that check the AIDS virus could lead to the virus becoming resistant to the drugs, making them ineffective when someone resumes taking them.

ADAP is part of the federal Ryan White CARE Act program. It operates in partnership with all 50 states, which share in meeting the cost of subsidizing drugs that could cost $10,000 or more for a patient each year. The program is aimed at low-income people who don’t have private health insurance or who are not eligible for government health programs like Medicaid.

State and federal health officials say the severe shortage in funding for the program is due to several developments, including the economic recession that has greatly curtailed revenue flowing into states. The number of people in need of the program has also shot up due to the success of the drugs, which are keeping most AIDS patients alive and relatively healthy.

The National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, which conducts an annual assessment of state ADAPs, determined earlier this year that $126 million in federal supplemental funds was needed to eliminate the waiting lists. The Obama administration responded by allocating $25 million, a sum most AIDS groups say is inadequate.

With support from the White House, a House of Representatives appropriations panel approved a $50 million increase in the ADAP budget for fiscal year 2011.

But the Obama administration, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have declined to back a Republican-backed bill in the Senate that calls for immediately transferring $126 million in unspent funds from the multi-billion dollar federal stimulus program to ADAP.

The Senate bill, the Access ADAP Act, was introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and co-sponsored by four other Senate Republicans. No Democrats have signed on to the bill so far.

“There is a legislative solution that’s on the table today that Congress could act on before they adjourn,” said Weinstein in discussing the Coburn bill.

“The argument that this is not appropriate — the stimulus money — compared to all the things you’ve read about, all the pork that’s been thrown into that, it’s really an affront to people living with HIV/AIDS,” he said.

A number of AIDS groups and activists have expressed support for the bill as a one-time emergency measure to address the ADAP waiting lists.

“To me, shifting unspent stimulus funds over to ADAP seems like a practical solution to a most dire situation,” said Dan O’Neill, an official with D.C.’s Gay/Bi/Trans HIV Prevention Working Group. “Otherwise people will die.”

While agreeing that more funds are urgently needed for ADAP, other national AIDS groups have expressed disagreement over AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s sharp criticism of the Obama administration and Speaker Pelosi on AIDS issues, saying Obama and Pelosi have each taken action to boost overall AIDS funding and advance AIDS programs.

“Increased resources for HIV/AIDS care, treatment, prevention and research has been one of the Speaker’s highest priorities throughout her entire congressional career,” said Pelosi spokesperson Drew Hammill. “Since becoming speaker, discretionary funding for HIV/AIDS has increased by over $500 million.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • The silence from AIDS Action, National AIDS Fund, National Minority AIDIS Council, Black AIDS Institute, and National Association of People is AIDS is deafening. Guess it just take a couple of invitations to White House receptions to be bought off . . .

    And the much touted National AIDS Plan means nothing without the resources to make it real.

  • President Bush was able to close the gap on ADAP waiting lists during his tenure, I am wondering why it is taking so long for the Obama Administration and congressional leadership to take action. A National HIV/AIDS Strategy doesn’t help if there is no political will to ending a very clear life-threatening emergency for people with HIV/AIDS across the country. Their response doesn’t lend much confidence as to the commitment of our government to people living with HIV/AIDS, national strategy or not.

  • Kristin – Your comments are very well stated. I was not a big fan of the nationwide city-tour of meetings for the development of an AIDS strategy. After 30 years, the last thing we need in the epidemic is another set of meetings! We all know what needs to be done — stakeholder groups have repeatedly, year-after-year, presented reports and petitions for action. While heralded as new and innovative, there is nothing new in the recently released national AIDS strategic plan. The development of an updated plan could have been done in a matter of months and vetted through the web. What we now required is the financial commitment from the administration and Congress towards implementation. Imagine, we are currently at the point where highly successful ADAP programs do not have the funds for those needing life-saving drugs. It is unconscionable to have “waiting lists” for those needing these drugs.

  • As I’ve interviewed activists, policymakers, researchers, AIDS service providers, and people living with HIV for the revised edition of my book Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America, I’ve been amazed at what a docile lot they’ve become. Watching the live Internet stream of the so-called “unveiling” of the National AIDS Strategy in July was painful. After 30 years without a coordinated national plan, this new document promised all kinds of improvements in how the U.S. continues to mishandle its AIDS epidemic. All the talk about preventing the spread of HIV by testing and treating people who need medication is hot air if HIV-positive people can’t access the life-saving treatment they need. Although I agree the U.S. has a key role to play in addressing the global HIV pandemic, it’s most important contribution is to first address our own “domestic” epidemic. There is something deeply wrong with allowing more than 3,000 Americans to languish on ADAP waiting lists while providing 72,000 additional Ugandans with FREE (yes FREE) HIV medication through the PEPFAR program.. Charity must begin at home, period. All the grand words and self-congratulations by Obama administration officials and AIDS advocates too compromised by their receipt of federal dollars to speak out are hollow as long as any American who needs HIV medication is unable to get it.

  • John-Manuel Andriote – Your points are absolutely on target. As I mentioned in my earlier post (above), our “national” organizations are serioursly culpable in their silence regarding the ADAP waiting list. They have become comfortably part of AIDS, Inc., a multi-million dollar trough while those in greatest need are left to languish without access to the very meds that will keep them alive. But, what the heck — develop a new plan, have another national conference, attend a smart White House reception, get a picture with Obama — it’s all in a day’s work.

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