When President Bush took office almost three years ago, there was considerable anxiety about what would happen to people with HIV under his administration. His record on AIDS issues as governor of Texas was not impressive, and he said very little about HIV during his campaign.
People living with HIV have been disappointed by past administrations. Even President Clinton failed in many ways in the fight against AIDS. His funding requests for AIDS programs were inadequate. The HIV immigration ban, which meant that HIV-positive people couldn't legally immigrate to the United States, became law under his watch. And he failed to lift the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs -- something he now regrets.
However, our challenges have multiplied and dramatically changed under the Bush Administration. The President has shown no leadership in providing adequate funding for the programs people depend on. For the first time since the federal government started funding AIDS programs, President Bush proposed flat funding -- resulting in no increases for HIV care and treatment programs in his first two budgets. He then tried to show some commitment by proposing $100 million increase for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) in the 2004 budget, but failed to insist that Congress allocate the funding. Even the President's highly publicized promises on the global pandemic have proven to be little more than empty words.
And our challenges run deeper than broken promises to people with AIDS. The Bush Administration enacted tax cuts at the same time they are leading the country into war. Tax cuts coupled with the billions requested for the "war on terrorism" mean less money at the federal level. This has crippled our ability to fund the healthcare programs, like Medicaid and Medicare. These programs serve some of the most vulnerable Americans. This administration appears to be leading the U.S. government out of the business of providing healthcare, particularly for poor and low-income people at a time when the country already counts 43 million people as uninsured.
President Bush's philosophy on the role of government is dangerous to people living with HIV. He is willing to break promises made to people living with HIV and vulnerable Americans by underfunding the Ryan White CARE Act and threatening healthcare programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare. And for women living with HIV, who rely heavily on the Medicaid program, this could create real hardship and suffering. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 61% of positive women use Medicaid compared to 31% of positive men.
Unfortunately, the new challenges posed by the Bush Administration come at a time when the AIDS policy advocacy movement is facing its own troubles. Funding for policy staff at AIDS organizations has started to dry up, resulting in far fewer people available to advocate with Congress and the Administration. There are also few staff left to run grassroots networks necessary to get information to people most affected by HIV so that they can communicate with their elected representatives. Individual activists not associated with an organization find it challenging to get support for their work.
However, this has started to change for the better. Recognizing that being effective requires working well together, policy advocates began forming coalitions around specific challenges. Local and statewide coalitions are now forming, such as the North Carolina AIDS Action Network, along with other individuals forming their own groups.
While all of these are positive changes, we will only be as successful as the collective efforts of everyone who gets involved. That's where you come in. Our battles right now are so important that everyone must be a part of the solution. Our elected officials pay attention to what they hear from their constituents. The best chance we have of securing adequate funding for AIDS programs is to make sure that elected officials hear our demands directly from us.
Women are experienced advocates for our children, family members and other loved ones. However, time constraints, health issues, work, children or other dependents can all make it difficult to become involved with these elected officials. However, it is also true that often women's voices are not heard in the policy debate and as a result needs are not met. One of the most effective ways to make change is to become involved as a citizen advocate.
The political environment has shifted dramatically in recent years. The programs that support people living with HIV and those at risk of infection are suffering. Elected officials do listen to voting constituents. Your help and action are essential to making a difference. Whether it's writing to your elected representatives for the first time, challenging candidates about their vision for fighting AIDS, or joining a group and organizing your own community, you can be part of the solution. After all, if not us ... then who?
You can find many good resources on Project Inform's public policy resource guide at www.projectinform.org/org/presources.html. You will find national, state, and local organizations that engage in AIDS advocacy on a variety of issues.
One way you can get involved is by joining Project Inform's Treatment Action Network. To join TAN, go to projinf.fauldhouse.com/tanlist/tanlist.php4, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with "subscribe" in the subject field.