Ten HIV/AIDS protesters were arrested Thursday outside of Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) office on Capitol Hill in protest over his proposed plan to roll back Obamacare and place limits on Medicare and Medicaid.
The act of civil disobedience took place on World AIDS Day to draw attention to the impact Ryan’s proposed cuts would have on HIV/AIDS as well as the potential impact of the confirmation of Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) as secretary of health and human services.
Led by Matthew Kavanagh, senior policy analyst at Health GAP, HIV/AIDS activists sought a meeting with Ryan at his office in the Longworth House Office Building. After knocking on the door to Ryan’s office numerous times, two staffers came into the hallway to meet with the activists and Kavanagh, who said Ryan’s plans would harm the estimated 1.2 million people with HIV in the United States and stifle efforts to address the global epidemic.
“This budget cut will kill people,” Kavanagh said. “The plan right now on the table will absolutely kill people.”
Activists handed the staffers a letter outlining their complaints and both of them an alarm clock, which immediately began ringing after they accepted them. Kavanagh said the clocks symbolized that the time has come for Ryan and Price to “wake up and stop privatizing our health care.”
Kavanagh informed the staffers the activists intended to stay in the hallway outside of the office until Ryan came to talk with them and confirm he won’t pass the budget proposal as it currently stands. When Kavanagh asked if Ryan would be coming, one staffer replied the office is open to schedule requests and she would be happy to take a request. When Kavanagh asked for a commitment not to pass the pending budget, the same staffer replied she’s happy to pass along a scheduling request.
At that point, Kavanagh immediately started a chant of “Paul Ryan…don’t you care…privatize our health care” as the activists began marching outside the office door and nearby officers with the Capitol Police — who were already present in the hallway as the activists approached — started blowing whistles. The activists brandished signs reading, “Ryancare = Corporate Control of Your Health Care” and “Corporate Hands Off My Medicare.”
After a few moments of protesting, Capitol Hill police began directing others nearby and the Washington Blade reporters to leave the hallway or face arrest. One officer directed the Blade to an intersecting hallway, where the remainder of the protest wasn’t visible. The Blade has sought consultation with the Periodical Press Gallery and the Press Photographers Gallery to complain about those actions.
Eva Malecki, a Capitol Hill Police spokesperson, confirmed afterward that 10 activists were arrested as a result of the incident under a D.C. Code Section 22-1307, which bars crowding, obstructing and incommoding. Malecki said the activists as of late Thursday afternoon were being processed for violating the law, which is a misdemeanor.
Ryan has proposed privatization of Medicare, which assists 20 percent of people living with HIV, and Republicans have suggested turning Medicaid, which covers 40 percent of people with HIV, into a block-grant program that would be subject to state control and more limitations. The speaker has made repeal and replacing the Affordable Care Act a top priority in the aftermath of the election of President-elect Donald Trump.
During his weekly news conference earlier in the day, Ryan defended the House Republican approach to health care, saying the current trajectory under Obamacare will lead to denied care for seniors under Medicare and bankruptcy of the program in 2028.
“The reforms that we have been talking about here in the House Republicans for many years are reforms that do not affect the benefits for anyone in or near retirement,” Ryan said. “But for those of us who are in the younger generations, the X generation on down, it won’t be there for us if we stay in the current path, so we have to do things to fix this program so we can guarantee that it is there, in fact, for current seniors, but also that there is something there for us when we retire. And the kinds of reforms that we have been advocating here are nothing different than what federal employees have.”
Prior to the act of civil disobedience, HIV activist groups — Health GAP, ACT UP NY, ACT UP Philly and the New York-based Treatment Action Group — held a rally to spell out their frustration with Ryan and the upcoming Trump administration about how their plans to change health care would affect people with HIV/AIDS. Nearly 100 people attended the demonstration.
Bryn Gay, HCV project director for the Treatment Action Group, was among those decrying the proposed rollback, saying as a result of cuts to fight the global epidemic, 40,000 patients her organization was helping obtain HIV/AIDS care now lack it.
“After 35 years, we’re so close to seeing an end to this God-forsaken, horrible, fucked up epidemic in this country and around the world by 2030,” Gay said. “Yes, I’m angry because we’re sliding backwards.”
One of the chants shouted by the rally attendees was “Paul Ryan…No More Lies…Don’t Balance the Budget with Our Lives.” Another was “Paul Ryan…Don’t You See…Your Budget Cuts Will Kill Me!” One protester leading the rally asked, “When people with AIDS come under attack, what do we do?” Rally attendees replied, “Act up! Fight back!”
Jose de Marco of ACT UP Philly expressed frustration that HIV/AIDS care is now in jeopardy after having come to Washington many times in the last 20 years to call for putting those federal programs in place.
“In 2016, I should not be here fighting for things we have already won,” de Marco said. “If you look at this disease today, who’s affected? It’s black folks and brown folks. Blacks and Latinos across this globe at a time in 2016 when we’re being shot down like dogs by police, we have to worry about medication to keep alive. It makes no sense.”
Asia Russell, executive director of Health GAP, said Ryan’s health care proposals as part of his plans for funding the federal government make for a “morally corrupt and cruel budget.”
“We will not go back to the days when the administration wouldn’t speak the word HIV, when our Congress refused to pay for housing for medicine, for condoms, refused to accept the evidence and the human rights that we deserve,” Russell said. “We will not be turned back, not today, not tomorrow, not one day in this new administration.”