HIV/AIDS advocates from around the world are descending on D.C. for the 19th International AIDS Conference with a shared goal: to eliminate a disease that has taken the lives of more than 25 million people worldwide.
Despite unity on this goal, politics inevitably plays a role in the response to the epidemic and advocates have widely differing views on who has done more in recent years to combat HIV/AIDS both at home and abroad: former President George W. Bush or President Obama.
Some praise the Obama administration for laying out a comprehensive plan and bumping up domestic funding to confront the epidemic, while others yearn for the Bush days because of the global initiatives the Republican president started despite his reputation for anti-gay policies.
Jim Driscoll, a gay Nevada-based HIV/AIDS activist who served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS during the Bush administration, is among those who believes Bush did more to stop the epidemic.
“I never sat down and had a one-on-one conversation with him, but people who did talked about how open he was to doing things on AIDS and how interested he was in that subject,” Driscoll said. “There wasn’t anything the community asked him to do that I was involved in that he didn’t do.”
Those who say Bush has done more for HIV/AIDS identified three major initiatives under the Bush administration: the start of a program called the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, to confront the global AIDS epidemic; streamlining fund allocation under the Ryan White Care Act to consider people who have HIV infection without full-blown AIDS; and allowing the first-ever rapid HIV tests to be used outside medical offices.
Driscoll, a Republican who’s backing GOP presumptive nominee Mitt Romney in the upcoming presidential election, recalled the process by which Bush approved rapid testing and said it was praised by many — with the exception of some Food & Drug Administration officials whom he overruled.
“It was a big step forward, and George Bush actually personally had a lot to do with that,” Driscoll said. “The president actually overruled FDA, and I was in the room when this was announced. There were about 100 people in the room, I think. I remember still that when he announced his approval of rapid testing … everybody in the room gave him a standing ovation except for the three people from FDA, who sat glumly. They didn’t applaud or anything.”
The AIDS Drug Assistance Programs under Bush didn’t see the waiting list levels that have been seen under the Obama administration. Under Obama, the waiting list last year reached an all-time high of 9,928 low-income people awaiting HIV drugs. That number has since dropped to about 2,000 today, according to the administration.
That’s not the only complaint that’s been lodged against Obama, who’s been criticized for reducing the global AIDS program that was set up by Bush. In his most recent budget request to Congress, the White House cut the program by half a billion dollars.
Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said HIV/AIDS was a “higher priority” for Bush than it is for Obama, citing the ADAP waiting list and the distinction in PEPFAR as a key difference between the presidents.
“We had practically no global AIDS program prior to President Bush taking office, and before he left office, they approved a $48 billion plan for PEPFAR, which Sen. Obama voted to authorize and enact,” Weinstein said. “This year, President Obama for the first time in the history of the program asked for less money for global AIDS than we had last year, and there’s $1.4 billion in unspent money in PEPFAR.”
However, the president’s most recent budget request includes an increase for domestic programs against HIV/AIDS: a $75 million increase for Ryan White and an increase of $67 million for ADAP from last year to eliminate waiting lists by 2013.
As for PEPFAR, the White House has maintained that the program is doing more with less by using generic drugs and shipping commodities more cheaply. On World AIDS Day, Obama announced he would fully fund the balance of the administration’s three-year, $4 billion pledge to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, defended the administration’s work on HIV/AIDS by citing achievements as well as plans set into motion to confront the epidemic.
“President Obama and his administration are unwavering in their commitment to addressing the issue of HIV/AIDS — on both the domestic and global fronts,” Inouye said. “These include steps such as establishing and implementing the first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy, lifting the HIV entry ban, and strengthening the impact and sustainability of PEPFAR and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.”
Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is also slated to have significant impact on people living with HIV. The Medicaid expansion under the health care reform law is expected to significantly expand coverage because half the people living with HIV already receive care through the program.
Carl Schmid, deputy executive director of the AIDS Institute, said Obama has “definitely” done more on HIV/AIDS — at least on the domestic front — in part because of his willingness to talk about how the disease impacts gay men.
“They are over 60 percent of the epidemic,” Schmid said. “Focusing on this community that has been ravaged by HIV, allowing a discussion and making gay people more acceptable — this could really turn the tide on HIV prevention for gay men. We have a president who is focusing on the community [and directing] resources that are more in line with how the epidemic is.”
In comparison, Bush took flak from HIV/AIDS advocates for not taking action on the epidemic in ways that might upset his conservative base. Among his actions: promoting abstinence-only sex education, opposing federal funds for needle exchange programs and remaining silent on gay men and condoms for much of his administration.
Michael Rajner, a gay Fort Lauderdale-based HIV/AIDS advocate who’s living with AIDS and has been selected as a delegate for the Democratic National Convention, said he thinks Obama has “absolutely” done more to fight HIV/AIDS based on a more science-based approach he’s taken against the disease.
“The difference between Republican and Democrat — in this case, George W. Bush and President Obama — is really the difference in thought, whether they’re going to be addressing HIV/AIDS through ideology or through science, and President Obama has certainly embraced the issues of science,” Rajner said.
One achievement often attributed to Obama is the lifting of the regulatory travel ban that prevented HIV-positive foreign nationals from entering the country — a move that enabled the International AIDS Conference to take place in the United States. But this process actually started under the Bush administration. Under Bush’s leadership, Congress repealed a law that barred HIV-positive foreign nationals from entering as part of the legislative package authorizing PEPFAR.
Schmid said he was “intimately involved” in the process under which Bush starting lifting the HIV travel ban.
“Credit goes to George Bush’s administration and the Congress for lifting the travel ban in reauthorization of PEPFAR,” Schmid said. “There still was a process at HHS, and Obama finished that process. It wasn’t completed in time, unfortunately, under President Bush, but they definitely lifted it congressionally.”
Driscoll said Bush should be commended because he accomplished work on HIV/AIDS despite being beholden to social conservatives who elected him to office.
“Every president, every politician is limited by his constituents, by the people who put him in office, who voted for him and the people he would depend upon to do the same thing should he run again,” Driscoll said. “You have to consider what a president does in terms of the limitations that are imposed. I think, given, the limitations that George Bush’s constituencies imposed, he showed real leadership.”