Advocates are calling on President Obama to deliver remarks on combatting the HIV/AIDS epidemic at the upcoming International AIDS Conference in Washington, noting the White House hasn’t yet to responded to an invitation for him to speak at the event.
Those calling on Obama to speak at the 19th International AIDS Conference for 2012 — which will take place in D.C. starting the week of July 22 — say the president should take the opportunity to highlight his administration’s work to combat the disease.
Whether the president will make an appearance remains in question. Adina Ellis, a spokesperson for the conference, said Obama has been officially invited to speak at and said the White House has acknowledged the invitation, but as of Monday conference officials “still have not received confirmation” on whether he’ll attend.
Carl Schmid, deputy executive director of the AIDS Institute, said he wants the president to take the opportunity to speak and “announce to the world that we are going to begin to end AIDS” and the ways in which that will happen.
“I think it would be very important for the president of the United States … to make a strong announcement that it is the policy of the United States that we’re going to end AIDS in the United States, and this is what I’m going to do to do it,” Schmid said. “We are looking for his strong affirmation. This is the place to do it; the eyes of the world are looking at this International AIDS conference.”
Schmid acknowledged the president has “a lot of competing interests” for his time.
“I don’t see why there should be any reluctance for them to attend,” Schmid said. “I think most people are expecting him and wanting him to attend, and I think it would be not a good sign if he did not come.”
The conference is taking place within the United States for the first time since 1990 thanks in part to the work of the Obama administration. The lifting of the HIV travel ban, which previously had prevented foreign nationals with HIV from coming into the United States, enabled international participants who may have HIV to come into the United States for the conference.
Brian Hujdich, executive director of the AIDS non-profit HealthHIV, said he wants Obama to speak at the conference to discuss ways in which health care reform will help HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment now that the Supreme Court has upheld the law’s constitutionality.
“I think the president could speak very meaningfully to what access to health insurance really means to people with HIV, including preventing HIV by having prevention programs and testing efforts in primary care settings, so that we can be both helping prevent HIV as well as ensuring the best quality care for all those with HIV,” Hujdich said.
Hujdich said he doesn’t know why Obama has yet to accept the invitation, but would be “shocked” if the president didn’t attend and speculated the administration was waiting for the Supreme Court ruling on health care “so the messaging and communication on [health care reform] implementation would be enhanced” before confirming attendance.
Last week, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said under questioning from the Washington Blade that he has no updates on Obama’s schedule when asked if the president would speak at the conference in D.C.
“I appreciate the question, but I do not have a scheduling update for you,” Carney said.
High-ranking members of the Obama administration are slated to address the conference, including Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Eric Goosby, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator. Other high-profile speakers include former President Bill Clinton, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and singer Elton John, who founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Despite general praise for his work on HIV/AIDS, Obama’s record isn’t without criticism, particularly in the global fight against the epidemic — an area where some critics have questioned whether former President George W. Bush accomplished more than his successor.
In his budget request for fiscal year 2013, Obama bumped up domestic spending for HIV/AIDS work, including a $102 million increase in funds for the Ryan White AIDS Drug Assistance Program from the previous year’s allocation of $1 billion. But the request cut the administration’s signature program in the global AIDS fight, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, by more than a half billion dollars, or almost 13 percent.
Bush established PEPFAR to provide anti-retroviral treatment to people with AIDS overseas. The HIV Medicine Association criticized the cut when the request was made public, saying the amount allocated “falls short” of support needed, although the White House contended at the time the administration was doing more with less funding and the cost of providing treatment for AIDS patients has fallen 50 percent since 2008.
Carney denied any connection between the cut in PEPFAR funds and any apparent hesitation in accepting the invitation to speak at the conference out of fear the president wouldn’t be well-received by global AIDS activists during his speech as a result of these cuts.
“Again, you’re connecting things, and I just don’t have an update for you on the president’s schedule,” Carney said.
Hujdich, who’s been at each conference since their start in Amsterdam 20 years ago, said attendees may take the opportunity to push Obama to do more in the global AIDS effort because the purpose of the conference is to mobilize people, including the president, to act — even though the president’s record on HIV/AIDS is considered substantial.
“I’m sure there will be some that will feel the need to criticize the president and be negative, but I firmly believe that would be a minority of the attendees,” Hujdich said.”That would come with the territory, but I still believe, all things considered, he is well regarded by the HIV community domestically and internationally.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Brian Hujdich and called HealthHIV an AIDS research organization. The Blade regrets the error.