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Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007 01:35 am

A new battle

Should HIV/AIDS be part of the national health-care debate?

Untitled Document When someone stole a month’s supply of medicine from 23-year-old AIDS activist Hydeia Broadbent and her insurance company refused to replace the drugs, she figured she’d pay for more out of her own pocket — until she learned that they’d cost her $1,600.
“They really expect people to be able to afford this medication? And I was only on five pills — imagine people who take 10 pills a month,” she says. Broadbent — Tuesday’s keynote speaker at the 16th annual Illinois Department of Public Health-sponsored HIV/STD Conference, held in Springfield this week — was born HIV-positive and began her public-speaking career at age 6, an irresistible voice asking for compassion for people with HIV. The victor of innumerable medical struggles (she has had chickenpox seven times), she calls affordable health care her “new battle.”
People who have HIV/AIDS often lack, and are unable to obtain, health insurance. This predicament means that they not only can’t afford expensive medicines but also must forgo such routine procedures as Pap smears, which women with HIV/AIDS are encouraged to have twice a year. As of August, 33,201 Illinoisans were living with HIV/AIDS, according to IDPH figures. For many people with HIV/AIDS who have limited prescription-drug insurance coverage or none at all, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which is funded by the federal government, state governments, and private donations, is the only way to get the medications they need. In March, activists held a lobby day at the Statehouse to support Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s proposal for universal health care, Illinois Covered, which the governor’s administration called “a major step toward slowing the spread of HIV/AIDS” in Illinois. Their voices fell on deaf ears; so far, legislators have resisted any expansion of state health benefits, citing cost concerns.
Health workers, social-service professionals, counselors, community activists, and about 150 people living with HIV/AIDS attended this week’s three-day conference, which also featured workshops, a film festival, and a prom-themed dance.
Insurance coverage wasn’t the only subject of discussion; other topics included housing issues, the correlation between drug and alcohol abuse and STDs, and HIV-prevention techniques for a variety of populations, such as Latinos, transgendered people, and residents of rural communities.
Harold Lawary, co-chair of the Illinois Community Planning Group, says, “It is important for us to stay vigilant in our efforts to develop prevention strategies to meet the needs of those communities most at risk for HIV disease.”
The IDPH’s newly appointed director, Dr. Damon Arnold, agrees with Lawary. Arnold, a colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard, says advances are needed to reduce the infection rate, particularly in the African-American community and among gay men. “We sometimes have a tendency to focus on statistics,” he says, “but when a person with HIV comes to you, it’s not just one person; it’s an entire community.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com
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