Housing Works President and CEO Charles King once sidled up to Sen. Barack Obama at a urinal to bend his ear about lifting the federal ban on needle exchange funding. He didn't have to go quite that far yesterday to get a one-on-one with Obama about the failings of his new national AIDS strategy.
To the chagrin of other AIDS advocates, who were enjoying a reception at the White House yesterday afternoon celebrating the president's new blueprint for tackling AIDS, King simply had to interrupt Obama as he was patting himself on the back for the dubious achievement of allocating $25 million to defuse the ADAP AIDS drug wait-list crisis.
King called out "Mr. President!" during Obama's speech to the assembled AIDS community in hopes of delivering a shortened version of the ugly truth that people don't want to acknowledge: The plan's goals for reducing new HIV infections are far too low; the lack of significant funding to address the national AIDS drug waiting-list crisis is a crime; failing to address housing and homelessness dooms the plan to failure.
King had surrounded himself with pals so that he couldn't easily be ejected, but it wasn't necessary. The president cut him off: "Hold on -- you can talk to me after. That's why I invited you here, right? So you don't have to yell, right?"
The crowd was clearly unhappy with King, but King wasn't cowed. He yelled out, "Thank you, I'd be happy to do it that way."
At the end of his speech, Obama came down to the rope barrier on King's side of the room, and King started making his way through the crowd toward him. Obama said, "Let that man through who wanted to talk with me."
Here's what followed, according to King:
Obama: "You know, that really isn't the appropriate way to start a conversation with me."
King: "I know, but I did something similar to have a conversation with you in New York a couple of years ago so I knew it would work. All I really want is to make sure you know that even if the national strategy is successfully implemented, we will still be loosing the battle against AIDS. We need a commitment of real resources and we need your leadership."
Obama: "And we are commiting new resources. First of all we worked hard all last year to pass health care reform which will dramatically expand health care coverage for people with AIDS."
King: "I appreciate that, Mr. President. We worked very hard in support of that. But, unfortunately, it didn't go nearly far enough to ensure people with AIDS will get the care they need. Meanwhile we have a huge gap."
Obama: "I know this isn't everything we need to do, but it is a start. And we are commiting new resources. We are investing $30 million more in prevention and…"
King, cutting off the president: "I read the plan but this really isn't enough. We really need your leadership."
Obama: "Well you've got my leadership, I promise you that."
Let's hope that Obama lives up to that promise. Despite the disappointment of Obama's inadequate blueprint for fighting AIDS, Housing Works' cofounder Virginia Shubert pointed out one bright spot: The various federal agencies who oversee the government's response to AIDS must submit plans for implementing the new strategy in 150 days. "Those plans have to be based on actual science," said Shubert. "That would be good."
Added King, "At least the President knows that we will continue to hold him accountable. His plan manages this country's AIDS epidemic. We need a plan that can end it."
Read the full text of Obama's White House speech on the national plan.
Read Housing Works' press release responding to the AIDS strategy.
Read Housing Works' blog post on today's AIDS strategy press conference.