AIDS Campaign Hits Washington on Two Fronts

Direct action, lobbying part of new effort to reawaken public, Congressional will

Before 8 a.m. in Washington, D.C. this Monday, dozens of people carrying signs that read “Abstinence only is phony,” entered the lobby of the conservative Family Research Council building, nestled innocuously across the street from the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Main Library. A smaller contingent, some draped with giant condoms, broke from the main group, chained themselves together around the FRC’s statue celebrating “traditional marriage,” and sat on the floor.

The Campaign to End AIDS (C2EA) had arrived in Washington, D.C.

Comprised of local HIV/AIDS organizations from the across the country, the C2EA is dedicated to rejuvenating American AIDS advocacy, as well as ensuring that traditionally underserved communities get the services they require and raising the awareness of elected leaders so they allocate what organizers call the necessary resources to halt the epidemic.

But in the face of a Congress that has shown little mercy when it comes to cuts in domestic programs, the Campaign’s goals are daunting. Among the most ambitious is the call for the renewal and expansion of the Ryan White CARE Act, and the restoration of the $10 billion cut from Medicaid this year because of the number of HIV-positive individuals who rely on the program for primary care.

It took the Washington police almost two hours to cut the protestors away from the Family Research Council. But their arrests only invigorated the crowd’s enthusiasm. After a short march downtown, the group, now numbering several hundred, set up outside the office building where another conservative Christian organization, the Concerned Women for America, has its headquarters.

The Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America are two organizations that the C2EA says have forced “religious ideology” into governmental HIV-prevention programs. Both have had success in getting the Centers for Disease Control of the Department of Health and Human Services to adopt policies that call into question the effectiveness of condoms in curbing HIV’s transmission.

“They have pushed the Bush administration to adopt policies that endanger women around the world,” said Julie Davids, executive director of CHAMP, the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, a main organizer of the civil disobedience protest at the Family Research Council.

She cited the pressure such groups had exerted to get the Bush administration to change the focus of American-supported international HIV-prevention programs from condom use and education to abstinence-only. Davids also said the recent input CWA had on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court was another reason that group became a protest target.

Last week it was reported that the Bush administration had solicited CWA’s input, along with other conservative organizations, on the suitability of Alito for the U.S. Supreme Court. During the Reagan administration, Alito, as a deputy attorney general, was responsible for authoring a policy that allowed private employers to fire HIV-positive workers.

But C2EA was not just a series of attention-getting stunts. The D.C. visit culminated on Tuesday when more than 500 participants made arranged visits to the offices of nearly every legislator on Capitol Hill.

“I’m here to speak for Mississippi on a national level,” said Robin Webb, his state’s director for the Campaign to End AIDS. “I’m originally from New York, and there’s an extreme difference in services and quality of life for people living with HIV in Mississippi.”

Organizers claimed they received appointments with dozens more representatives and senators than they did back in March during the kickoff lobby day.

“Even people I wouldn’t characterize as strong supporters of HIV and AIDS issues met with the Campaign’s lobbyists. I think it was the level of commitment and sacrifice of the participants that convinced them they should pay attention,” said Ernest Hopkins, federal affairs director for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Many participants had spent several weeks on the road, stopping in cities along the way to generate attention for HIV and AIDS. Twenty-five people walked from New York City to Washington, D.C.

The Campaign’s organizers stressed that most of those meeting with government officials were not professional lobbyists or HIV/AIDS advocates, but rather a diverse group of people from around the country who have been affected by the disease and want the U.S. government to do more to combat it.

Charles King, co-director of C2EA who heads the New York City advocacy group Housing Works, told the San Francisco Chronicle this week that this was part of the point.

“Certain groups have become complacent about activism,” he said. “Well, we’re here to say it’s time to stop being complacent about HIV/AIDS. Stop using hired lobbyists to do your work and be out there.”

The timing of the D.C. visit was fortuitous. This was the week Congress debated the Health and Human Services appropriations bill for 2006, which includes funding for HIV and AIDS programs.

Last week, the Senate passed the Smith-Clinton amendment that would allow many low-income HIV-positive people to qualify for Medicaid and begin receiving anti-retroviral medication before they are diagnosed with AIDS. In the past such individuals could not receive Medicaid and HIV drugs until they had full-blown AIDS.

C2EA has always demanded that low-income individuals should qualify for HIV medications whether they had full-blown AIDS or not. They contend early treatment has been shown to increase life expectancy and decrease the need for later, and more costly, medical care.

If agreed upon by the House, the law would take effect next year. It would allocate $450 million for the next five years.

C2EA was also in town to urge re-authorization of the Ryan White CARE Act, a law that provides many HIV-positive people with primary and supportive medical care not available because of their income or gaps in their insurance coverage.

Even though President George W. Bush called for the bill’s renewal in his last State of Union speech, the measure has not been passed, surviving only by bridge funding since it expired in September.

Conflict over how funds will be allocated to local communities, as well as national events such as Hurricane Katrina that have dominated the recent legislative agenda, have slowed the bill’s movement through Congress.

Joy Morris, an Illinois transgendered woman who educates sex workers about HIV, said this was the most challenging part of her day on Capitol Hill, convincing people to hurry up and pass the Ryan White Act.

“AIDS is not going anywhere. The new infection rate is mind boggling—8,500 people a day die from it, but no one wants to address it,” she said, referring to global estimates of the epidemic’s mortality.

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