President Obama is facing criticism from an HIV/AIDS group for not yet committing to speak at the upcoming International AIDS Conference and not doing more to confront the global and domestic epidemic. Other groups, meanwhile, are calling the criticism of Obama misguided.
On Monday, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation held a news conference in D.C. at the offices of Parry, Romani, DeConcini & Symms Associates to call on Obama to speak at the conference and take more action to confront HIV/AIDS. The organization provides advocacy and medical care to more than 166,000 people with HIV/AIDS in 26 countries.
Tom Myers, chief of public affairs and general counsel for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, was particularly critical of Obama for not yet confirming that he’ll make an appearance at the upcoming 19th International AIDS Conference, which will will take place at D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center during the week of July 22.
“We are here to express our concern and dismay that, less than two weeks from the start of the conference, President Obama has yet to commit to attending it,” Myers said. “In the 20-odd year history of this conference, it is virtually obligatory for the head of state of the host nation to address the conference at its opening.”
It’s the first time since 1990 that the conference will take place in the United States. Organizers agreed to hold the conference in D.C. after the lifting of the HIV travel ban in 2009, which had prevented HIV-positive foreign nationals from entering the United States. The process for removing the ban started under the Bush administration through legislative action and ended under the Obama administration.
As of Monday, the conference hadn’t yet announced whether it had received confirmation that Obama would speak. Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said he had no updates on whether Obama will attend the conference.
Former President Bill Clinton has agreed to speak at the conference this year as well as former first lady Laura Bush. High-ranking administration officials who are set to speak include Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Eric Goosby, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator.
It’s not unprecedented for the head of state to be absent from the conference, according to organizers. The Canadian prime minister didn’t speak when the conferences were held in that country in 1996 in Vancouver or 2006 in Toronto, nor did Spain’s prime minister attend the 2002 conference in Barcelona. In 1990, then-President George H.W. Bush didn’t address the conference in San Francisco, but then-Secretary of Health & Human Services Louis Sullivan delivered remarks at the closing ceremony.
While criticizing Obama for not confirming his attendance, Myers at the same time said the administration wasn’t doing enough to confront HIV/AIDS and said “it may be better if the president not attend the conference if he is coming without any concrete proposals to fix these problems.”
For starters, Myers criticized the president for cutting funds in the fight against the global AIDS epidemic, calling on Obama to restore the money that was cut from PEPFAR, as part of the fiscal year 2013 budget request.
“Internationally, the Obama administration is the first administration to actually propose cutting funding to America’s efforts, including cutting almost half a billion dollars from PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief,” Myers said. “A retreat in the efforts to fight the global epidemic is unprecedented.”
The sentiment that Obama has taken a step back in global fight against HIV/AIDS was echoed by Omonigho Ufomata, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s director of global policy and advocacy.
“We demand he restore funding to PEPFAR and expand treatment prior to addressing the International AIDS Conference,” Ufomata said. “We have a blueprint for stopping AIDS, i.e get more people on treatment, but that can only be achieved if President Obama gets real about the money.”
Further, Myers faulted Obama for not providing enough support to the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, the primary program for providing lifesaving HIV/AIDS drugs to low-income people, saying the wait list for the programs stands at 2,000 people.
“Domestically, President Obama has presided over the longest and deepest waiting lists for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, or ADAP in history,” Myers said. “ADAP is the primary program for providing lifesaving HIV/AIDS drugs to uninsured people of limited means in this country and for years, thousands of people, at one point almost 10,000 people, have had to wait to receive these drugs.”
Myers called on Obama to redirect funds within the Department of Health & Human Services “to immediately end the ADAP waitlists once and for all.”
Despite these criticisms, Obama has generally received praise for his work on HIV/AIDS. On World AIDS Day in December, President Obama announced an additional $35 million for the ADAP program and $15 million more for Part C of the Ryan White Care Program as well as a three-year, $4 billion pledge to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Additionally, under the FY-13 budget request, funding for the Ryan White AIDS Drug Assistance Program would increase by $75 million. The budget also bumps up $1 billion for AIDS drug assistance programs, an increase of $67 million above the previous fiscal year’s levels. The administration is predicting this funding will end ADAP waiting lists next year.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said PEPFAR is able to accomplish more with less money in previous years as the number of people the United States directly supports with lifesaving antiretroviral treatment has more than doubled from around 1.7 million to more than 3.9 million.
“PEPFAR continues to improve efficiency and lower costs,” the official said. “By using generic drugs, shipping commodities more cheaply, task-shifting to nurses and community health workers as appropriate, and linking AIDS services to other programs (such as maternal and child health), the per-patient cost to the U.S. of providing anti-retroviral treatment for AIDS patients has fallen by over 50 percent since 2008.”
Based on this commitment, the leaders of other HIV/AIDS groups said they didn’t share the criticisms levied against Obama by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
Carl Schmid, deputy executive director of the AIDS Institute, said he’s still hoping Obama will make an appearance at the AIDS conference, but believes the criticism is “misplaced” and should be directed elsewhere.
“We feel the president has been leading on domestic AIDS and has put forth an ambitious National HIV/AIDS Strategy, passed health care reform, and proposed budget increases for ADAP and HIV prevention,” Schmid said. “While he could always do more, we feel the criticism is misplaced and instead the focus should be on some members of the Congress, many of whom want to repeal health reform and cut funding to AIDS programs.”
Chris Collins, vice president and director of public policy for the Foundation for AIDS Research, or amfAR, said Obama has “greatly advanced” the domestic response to HIV.
“His national strategy, the Affordable Care Act — these are game changers in the domestic epidemic, so we should be proud of what the president has done on domestic AIDS,” Collins said.
Collins added he wants “to see increases” in PEPFAR funding, but said Obama has made historic commitments to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria and “new and more substantial commitments in terms of scaling up services.”
Asked by the Washington Blade during the news conference if Obama deserves credit for increasing funds for the Ryan White Care Program, Myers said Obama deserves some praise, but more is needed.
“The problem is, again, even with that, the ADAP waiting list – and ADAP is a part of the Ryan White Program — it’s chronic, it’s ongoing. … So, again, increases that have occurred, credit is where credit is due, but the point is, it is not enough,” Myers said.
Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who joined the conference via telephone, dismissed Obama’s increase in funds for the Ryan White Care Program on the basis that a minority percentage of people with HIV/AIDS are in regular care under the program.
“We are sending out a really mixed message when we have more waiting lists for these drug programs and we’re telling people that they should be tested,” Weinstein said. “I mean, why would they want to get tested when they don’t know if they can have access to treatment? But the bottom line is that to have only 41 percent of people in routine care and having more than 600,000 people who either don’t know that they’re positive or are not in routine care is not a success.”
Weinstein added his organization has tried “without a lot of success” to enlist help from the administration in bringing down the cost of medications, saying the federal government could offer more support “in negotiations with the drug companies to make these drugs more accessible.”
Blade photo editor Michael Key contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An initial version of this article misquoted the AIDS Institute’s Carl Schmid as saying the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s criticisms of Obama were “misguided.” The word he used was “misplaced.” The Blade regrets the error.