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.”