In Georgia, these cuts will reduce the number of people tested for HIV (13,475 fewer), increase the waiting list for life-saving medications (553 will be waiting), and reduce access to medical and mental health services that are critical for care and for preventing the spread of HIV. It reminds me of the really bad old days of the AIDS epidemic.
As a mental health provider who started working with people with HIV/AIDS more than 20 years ago, I remember those days. I saw people like T., a 26-year-old white gay man who avoided HIV testing until he became sick because he was more afraid of the results than of the consequences of ignorance.
I can’t forget P., a 40-year-old artist who committed suicide after his diagnosis rather than face the sickness and death he believed would come next. Federal budget cuts threaten to bring back stories like these.
We do not need to go back.
It has been more than 15 years since effective treatment for HIV became available, and over the last few years we learned that antiretroviral medications reduce a person’s likelihood of transmitting the virus by more than 90 percent.
This year, medical advances have opened the possibility of a cure for some. Mental health treatment for people with HIV is now recognized as an essential service with considerable effectiveness in increasing medication adherence and reducing new infections.
As a community, we know what to do, we just need the sustained resources to do the work — to prevent HIV and care for the 40,000 Georgians living with HIV.
The sequester cuts are already here. There is nothing we can do to stop them. To save lives now, our best hope is to accept federal dollars that will expand Medicaid coverage in Georgia. The burden of HIV has never been shared equally. HIV disproportionally affects those with low income.
Medicaid expansion would provide essential coverage to 43 percent of these individuals residing in the 20-county Atlanta metro-area served by the Ryan White HIV care program. They would have access to medication, healthcare and, most importantly for some, mental health services. But Governor Deal has said that he will reject the Medicaid expansion.
My hope is that he will reconsider, that the lessons I and my colleagues learned over 20 years of working with people with HIV will not have been in vain. We do not need to go back to the bad old days of HIV.
May Georgia have the political will to act, as we say during the AIDS Walk, as though we believe that “every life deserves hope.”
Paul Plate, LPC, is executive director of Positive Impact, an agency providing mental health, addiction and prevention services for people affected HIV. Positive Impact celebrates its 20th anniversary this week.