8 Advocates Share Their Top HIV Policy Issues at AIDSWatch 2019

Contributing Editor
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Clockwise from bottom left: Bill McColl, LaWanda Wilkerson, Cris Sardina, and Mona Bennett at AIDSWatch 2019. (Credit: Charles Sanchez and Mark S. King)

On April 1, over 500 people living with HIV and their allies from 40 states across the U.S. headed to Capitol Hill for AIDSWatch. There, they passionately advocated about issues affecting their communities, both locally and on a national level.

As Bill McColl, vice president for policy and advocacy for AIDS United, said, "This is the first AIDSWatch since the government announced that they are going to end the AIDS epidemic. The community is ready to do it, and we have to take Congress to task about ending the epidemic."

Here, we feature a handful of those advocates (a random sample, though not selected scientifically) and the concerns most significant to them.

*AIDSWatch is the annual HIV advocacy event that brings together members of the HIV community with national leaders. Presented by The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, the event was held April 1 and 2 in Washington D.C., organized by AIDS United, the Treatment Access Expansion Project, and the US People Living with HIV Caucus.

Charles Sanchez is an openly gay, openly poz writer/director/actor living in New York City. He has written for WritingRaw.com and HuffPost's Queer Voices. As a performer, musical director, and director, he has worked in venues ranging from Lincoln Center and off-Broadway to dinner theater in Arkansas. His award-winning musical comedy web series, Merce, is about an HIV-positive guy living in New York who isn't sad, sick, or dying.*

Charles Sanchez

"This is my first time coming to AIDSWatch. I definitely want to talk to my representatives about Medicaid expansion, and making sure that we don't get rid of anything. Universal health care, that's the biggest thing for us, especially with all this stuff going on with Trump. We want to make sure that we have health care in Virginia."

-- Deidre Speaks from Petersburg, Va., representing Ending Criminalization of HIV and Over-Incarceration in Virginia (ECHO VA) and Positive Women's Network-USA

Charles Sanchez

"Housing is one of the biggest issues. I lived in a two-year transitional housing facility for men and women living with HIV in Chicago from 2014 to 2016. Without some very important funding sources, that wouldn't have been able to happen. That house has been open for over 30 years now and is always at maximum capacity. So many of us would have been on the streets, and many of us had been. So housing for people living with HIV is my main focus, to make sure that those kinds of opportunities remain available."

-- Ezra Meadors from Chicago, Illinois, representing AIDS Foundation of Chicago

Mark S. King

"My big issues are harm reduction, continuing needle-exchange programs, and continuing funding for health care. I want to make sure that the policy-makers understand the intersection between HIV and related conditions like hepatitis B and C, and I want to make sure that they act on those issues accordingly."

-- Mona Bennett from Atlanta, Georgia, representing the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition

Charles Sanchez

"I'm a person living with HIV for six years. I want to make sure that we have help for African-American women living with HIV. There are not really a lot of support groups for women. Also, for people living with HIV in rural communities, including transportation to medical care. It's a real challenge for people in rural areas to get the care that they need."

-- LaWanda Wilkerson from Henderson, North Carolina, representing The Well Project

Mark S. King

"The intersection between HIV and harm reduction, obviously the opioid crisis. This is really exciting, that this is the first time that AIDSWatch has incorporated specific harm-reduction activists in the conversation. The conversations [with representatives] will be centered around making sure that we're including syringe service programs, that we are being mindful of the opioid crisis, and HIV/AIDS appropriations."

-- Aaron Matthew Laxton from St. Louis, Missouri, representing the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery

Charles Sanchez

"I'm going to be talking to Arkansas representatives about outdated HIV laws. These laws which are still on the books from 1980, the sex offender registry, spitting, biting. And they're still using those outdated laws against people [living with HIV]. It's terrible."

-- Cris Sardina, from northwest Arkansas, representing Desiree Alliance

Charles Sanchez

"My biggest issue is that being only 43, and talking about the new rule change to Medicare Part D -- I've had pancreatic cancer [in addition to living with HIV], so I am on disability. We love to talk about HIV and aging, but I'm not at that 65-year mark yet, and I don't see enough of people like me represented when it comes to Medicare Part D. Without that messaging, a lot of people who are on disability and who rely on Medicare Part D for our medications don't realize that it impacts them.

"And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that I'm also going to make sure my legislators know that providing effective treatment for HIV not only saves lives. We can become virally suppressed and undetectable, resulting in there being zero risk of us being able to transmit HIV to a sexual partner. U=U [undetectable equals untransmittable]!"

-- Brady Dale Morris from Nashville, Tennessee, representing Tennessee AIDS Advocacy Network