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Lifting Your Voice and Speaking Your Truth to Congress on HIV

February 17, 2017

It is alright to be scared, but you cannot run away. It is alright to feel overwhelmed, but you must not stop fighting. It is alright to get discouraged, but you should not wallow in self-pity and apathy, because that is how they take your health care from you. They -- those members of Congress and the administration who advocate for health care reform that relegates the poor and people with chronic conditions to a second-class citizenship -- rely upon a public that is disengaged and jaded to get their policies passed. These senators, representatives, and administration officials do not wish to enlighten, but to obfuscate. They know that the only way legislation aimed at taking health care away from millions of Americans can be enacted is to keep us, the people who Thomas Jefferson once described as the only safe depository of the ultimate powers of society, languishing in the dark.

But they will not succeed in this aim, because from the moment the current Congress made clear their designs to gut the Affordable Care Act, people have risen up and made their opposition to such plans clear. From The Women's March that mobilized at least 3.5 million Americans to a slew of town hall meetings and activist actions, the resistance to health care policies that neglect the old, sick, and the poor has been unrelenting and passionate. In some instances, like the town hall meeting hosted by Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), citizens made their anger and frustration known through organized, peaceful protest. In others, like a town hall with Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), constituents like Jessi Bohan powerfully gave voice to the reasons they support the ACA and a health care system where, "the healthy people pull up the sick."

Last week, we encouraged you to take the opportunity provided by the scheduled Congressional recess following Presidents' Day to advocate directly to your members of Congress while they were back in their home districts and states. We told you that many of them would be hosting town halls that you could attend to ensure that your voice would be heard by your representatives in Washington. However, over the course of the past week, many members of Congress have started to back out of town halls or modify them to be "tele-town halls", where the impact of in-person advocacy can be blunted and unwanted voices can be silenced.

On one hand, the growing reticence of some members of Congress to participate in town halls and other public forums is a very disappointing development. It is never a good thing when elected officials purposefully distance themselves from their constituents and erect barriers that prevent the general public from interacting with them in a meaningful way. On the other hand, the wariness on display by members of Congress when it comes to participation at town halls means that the actions being taken by health care advocates and others are having a demonstrable effect on them. A Congressperson going so far as to cancel a town hall or declare their intentions not to hold any town halls is an admission on his or her part that public dissent has influenced their actions.

Congress members can cancel town halls, but they can't run away from democracy. The will of the people must be heeded and the voices of people living with HIV need to resonate loudly and clearly amongst the chorus of advocates. Over the Presidents' Day recess and beyond, the HIV community needs to draw upon the decades of impactful and powerful advocacy efforts that have been its hallmark and ensure that members of Congress and the Trump administration know that you will not go quietly back to a world where Medicaid expansion is rolled back and people with pre-existing conditions can be discriminated against. You must tell your story or stand in solidarity besides others as they tell theirs, amplifying the emotional resonance of their message with talking points rooted in unambiguous fact.

Now is the time to stand up and be accounted for, the time to speak truth to power. And, while engaging in actions around the Presidents' Day recess is important, there is no better way to impact federal HIV/AIDS policy and to advocate for people living with HIV than to register for AIDSWatch. While it has long been the largest annual HIV/AIDS advocacy event in America, the scope and importance of AIDSWatch this year is more critical than ever. We need your help now more than ever if we're going to make Congress recognize the possibility and urgency of ending the HIV epidemic and protecting the policies that allow people living with HIV to get access to quality, affordable care.

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This article was provided by AIDS United. Visit AIDS United's website to find out more about their activities and publications.

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