May 25, 2016 at 9:43 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Sanders makes commitment for Dem platform in HIV/AIDS meeting
Bernie Sanders, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) met with HIV/AIDS activists. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made a new commitment to highlight access to generic medications during a meeting with HIV/AIDS activists, according to attendees at the meeting.

The meeting took place late Wednesday in San Bernadino, Calif., with days remaining before the Democratic primary in the state on June 7.

According to a statement from the Sanders campaign, the candidate thanked the 20 representatives of the HIV/AIDS community in attendance at the conclusion of the meeting, which was hosted by Sanders supporter and actor-activist Danny Glover.

“Let me thank you for the work you do,” Sanders said. “The issues you have raised are enormously important and effect millions of people in this country and more around the world.”

According to activists, Sanders pledged during the meeting the 2016 Democratic Party platform will include a plank on the need to increase generic competition for pharmaceutical production of HIV/AIDS drugs, such as by reducing U.S. pressure on India to change its patent laws.

As part of a recent agreement with the Democratic National Committee, Sanders is able to name five members of the Democratic Party platform committee compared to the six members Clinton is able to name.

Hilary McQuie, who attended the meeting as director of U.S. policy and grassroots mobilization for the HIV/AIDS group Health GAP, said Sanders’ commitment on generic drugs was significant.

“The expansion of HIV/AIDS treatment globally has only been possible because of the reduction of intellectual property barriers that has allowed generic competition,” McQuie said. “This has resulted in a 99 percent drop in the price of HIV drugs. It is crucial that barriers to generic production continue to be reduced for new medications. India’s freedom to put public health and access to medicines ahead of pharma greed and U.S. bullying will mean the difference between life and death for millions of people.”

Michael Briggs, a Sanders spokesperson, didn’t go as far as saying Sanders made a commitment to a plank in the platform, but still said the candidate hopes it will happen.

“Bernie has always believed there should be an expansion of generic drugs throughout the world so poor people can get the drugs they need,” Briggs said. “He has for years taken on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry which had resulted in unnecessary death and suffering in many parts of the world. As president, he will fight for a major expansion of generic drug production. He hopes the Democratic convention in Philadelphia agrees with that.”

Much like during a meeting between HIV/AIDS and Clinton, activists presented Sanders a policy proposal seeking new commitments on HIV/AIDS. The policy document calls on candidates to prevent trade deals and intellectual property laws hindering generic production of medications, which activist say pose a threat to drug access.

In addition to asking Sanders to stop U.S. government pressure on India to change its patent law, activists say they asked Sanders to reaffirm his commitment to ending the AIDS pandemic by 2030 and commit to increase funding the global AIDS programs by $2 billion per year by 2020. Sanders has already committed to double the number of people receiving HIV treatment directly supported by the United States, but hasn’t committed to a funding target.

According to the Sanders campaign, Sanders agreed to set a national goal of ending the HIV epidemic within the country by the year 2025 so that in that year HIV is no longer a public health threat within any community in the United States. Further, the Sanders campaign says, the candidate called for expansion of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, which provides HIV-related services.

According to the Sanders campaign, the candidate at the meeting talked about his support for the California Drug Price Relief Initiative, which will be on the ballot initiative in the state in November. It would prohibit the state from paying more for prescription drugs, including HIV/AIDS treatments, than the lowest price paid for the same drug by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We think it’s a great start and we applaud the people of California for standing up to the pharmaceutical industry,” Sanders in a statement after the meeting.

Both Clinton and Sanders have made ending HIV/AIDS, which affects an estimated 1.2 million people in the United States, a component of their presidential campaigns. Sanders has unveiled a plan that doesn’t mention PrEP, but includes a goal for “virtually universal access” to low cost AIDS medications as soon as they’re approved and pushes for legislation to bar discrimination against LGBT people and people with HIV/AIDS.

Sanders initially agreed in the days before the crucial New York Democratic primary to take part in the meeting on the same day his rival for the Democratic nomination Hillary Clinton agreed to take part in separate meeting. HIV/AIDS activists had sought to meet with each of the 2016 presidential candidates in the aftermath of Clinton’s controversial remarks — for which she has apologized twice — praising Nancy Reagan for her HIV/AIDS efforts.

But days before the scheduled meeting in Indiana, Sanders cancelled without explanation days before it took place. Meanwhile, the meeting with Clinton took place as scheduled and the candidate took the opportunity to call for an end to HIV/AIDS “once and for all.” On the same day as the Clinton meeting, the Sanders campaign contacted HIV/AIDS to reschedule.

According to HIV/AIDS activists, they’re still waiting for Clinton to fulfill the verbal promises she made to advocates at the meeting after she pledged to follow-up within 30 days.

The campaign for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has told activists he will schedule a meeting with HIV/AIDS activists after the campaign hires a policy staff, according to activists.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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