HIV Activists Arrested at Paul Ryan's Office, as Rally Lays Out Demands for President-Elect Trump and Republican-Controlled Congress

HIV activists arrested on World AIDS Day 2016
Jessica Bassett

Today in Washington D.C., 11 HIV activists were arrested in the United States Congress at the office of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R), voicing concerns about the impact of anticipated budgetary and policy changes in a Republican-controlled legislature and Trump administration. According to protest organizers, people living with HIV, students, nurses, and others took over the hallway outside Ryan's office, holding signs and banners reading "Ryan & Price's Healthcare Dream is a Nightmare for People with HIV." They were removed from the building and placed under arrest while chanting, garnering applause from those gathered for a spirited rally on World AIDS Day.

"When staffers won't commit to meeting with Ryan or halting budget, activists begin chanting, marching in a circle," reported Chris Johnson of the Washington Blade via Twitter. Johnson's next tweet explained he was being pushed out of the hallway by security, warning that he would be arrested unless he moved.

Before the action at Paul Ryan's office, AIDS activists gathered outside on the Capitol Hill lawn in a preemptive strike against potential health care budget cuts. Members from watchdog groups D.C. Fights Back, ACT UP Philadelphia, Health GAP, Vocal New York, Student Global AIDS Campaign, American Medical Student Association, Treatment Action Group and Universities Allied for Essential Medicine collaborated to deliver their message of grave concern over projected changes in government spending for domestic and global health and HIV care. An estimated 200 people attended the rally, seeking to send a robust, tri-fold message to President-elect Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress: Keep the Affordable Care Act (ACA) intact, stop drug companies from price gouging and strengthen Medicaid and Medicare.

The rally drew activists from New York and Philadelphia, who joined local activists from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

What's at Stake?

Since the passing of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Republicans have vowed to repeal it. The HIV treatment-friendly law provides more choices for health care coverage by expanding Medicaid, preventing insurance companies from dropping people because of pre-existing conditions and lowering the cost of health insurance, among other benefits. President-elect Trump has selected Representative Tom Price (R-GA), a man who has railed against the ACA since 2009, to be the head of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Price, along with House Speaker Paul Ryan, claims to have a plan that will offer more health coverage choices, won't raise out-of-pocket costs and will strengthen Medicare. Critics chide that the plan lacks detail, turns Medicare into a coupon/voucher system and would ultimately drop 20-million people from health care coverage. They also say the GOP plan is skimpy on how it will tackle the high price of prescription drugs. Republicans traditionally favor the free market over government regulation, but without some monitoring "big pharma" can price their drugs however they please, advocates caution.

Jason Walker, coordinator of AIDS Housing Advocacy Network at VOCAL New York, says the American people deserve a health care system free from corporate greed:

Access to quality health care is the right of the American people. Speaker Paul Ryan's plan is to hands the health of our families over to for-profit corporations. We have seen corporations value what is in the best interest of their profit margins over the well-being of our families. Our health care system belongs solely in the hands of the American people and not with corporations who have an invested interest in seeing us sick.

A Hopeful Alternative

To help alleviate short-term concerns, Congress could pass an omnibus bill to provide additional funding for programs provided by the Department of Labor as well as HHS. These departments support HIV services funded through the Ryan White Program, prevention efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Such an omnibus bill should also sustain funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which includes the Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS program (HOPWA.)

One protester at today's rally, George Kerr III, is a community activist, president of D.C. Fights Back and CEO of GIII Associates. As a man who has lived with HIV for over 20 years, his reasons for joining the rally go beyond legislation. For Kerr, this fight is highly personal:

I am a long-term survivor who has had to rely on Medicaid for the first time in 21 years. This battle is not just about politics. It's a matter of life and death for me. I have educated myself on how to advocate for my needs. Now I am concerned about other individuals who do not know how to navigate the system for themselves.