OP-ED: For the Progressive Media Project op-ed syndicate

The Administration's Fight Against AIDS Must Look at the Home Front, Too

By Kai Wright

As the GOP prepares to highlight President Bush's compassionate side at its upcoming convention, the White House will likely trumpet the president's global AIDS plan as a prime example of his care for the less fortunate. But the fact is, not only has the U.S. global AIDS initiative failed, so has the domestic fight against the virus.

Bush promised a little more than a year and a half ago to put $15 billion into global AIDS treatment and prevention programs over the next five years. So far the United States has given out only about $850 million of the money, and with all sorts strings attached.

The program won't pay for generic drugs, and it pushes abstinence-only prevention campaigns.

Here at home, about 1 million Americans are known to be currently living with HIV, more than half of whom are not receiving care, some researchers believe.

In the poor neighborhoods of the richest country in the world, we are failing our own people.

Soon after aggressive drugs called anti-retrovirals were introduced in the mid-1990s, drug companies immediately began charging astronomical sums, making the price of treatment between $10,000 and $12,000 a year. When associated costs are added in, it's closer to $20,000 a year.

Studies estimate that only about a third of Americans living with HIV have private insurance (compared to three-quarters of Americans overall). How do the rest pay for treatment? Half are enrolled in Medicaid or Medicare, and a fifth are uninsured altogether.

In just about every state, Medicaid is on the brink of financial collapse, in large part because of the programs' disproportionate load of disabled and chronically ill subscribers.

Rather than boost the federal share of this burden, the Bush administration has spent the last four years pushing a plan that would cut federal funding to states. In return, the White House would relieve states of the cumbersome rules that accompany federal cash--like, say, the one that prevents them from "cherry picking" the most desirable (in other words, the least expensive) applicants.

The AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which is the federally funded, state-run safety net for uninsured HIV-positive folks, is in even worse shape than Medicaid.

As of the beginning of August, more than 1,500 people in nine states had been forced onto waiting lists due to lack of funds. Another 10 states have set up other cost-containment measures, such as limiting what drugs are available, and six more are expected to do the same soon.

In fact, only 17 states offer the full range of HIV meds recommended by the U.S. Public Health Service.

In June, Bush announced $20 million in emergency funding to get rid of the existing waiting lists. But that money also has not yet gone out, and the waiting lists have since grown.

What's more, the White House's budget for next year gives the AIDS Drug Assistance Program only an extra $35 million. That's about $280 million less than what state AIDS program directors told Bush they would need to avoid having the same waiting lists this time next year.

Sadly, the White House appears to have chosen to conserve its compassion.

Kai Wright is editor of This op-ed was syndicated to daily newspapers around the country through the Progressive Media Project.


JOINT-STATEMENT: With Essence Magazine

Vice Presidential Candidates Bungle AIDS Question During Debate

“I want to talk to you about AIDS. And not about AIDS in China or Africa, but AIDS right here in this country where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts. What should the government’s role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?” We were first struck by the visual, when Gwen Ifill, the African American female moderator of the lone vice presidential debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator John Edwards, his Democratic challenger asked this question.

Mr. Cheney’s response to Ms. Ifill’s question was “I had not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women. I was not aware that it was that severe and epidemic there”. AIDS is the leading cause of death for Black women between the ages of 24-45. Every day, more than 20 African American women get infected with HIV. Black women are 23 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV then white women. How can Vice President Cheney not know these facts?

The Vice President’s lack of awareness about the magnitude of the AIDS epidemic in African American communities speaks volumes about the low priority our government places on the lives of African Americans. This view is reflected in many of our government’s current domestic HIV/AIDS policies—from flat funding for treatment and care when more people are living with HIV/AIDS than ever before, to advocating abstinence-only programs to the detriment to comprehensive prevention efforts, to opposing needle exchange programs, which have been shown to reduce HIV infections among drug users without increasing drug use. Not only do such policies fly in the face of the experiences of those of us who live this disease every day, they also fly in the face of sound public health science.

Mr. Edward’s answer was hardly any better.

When Ms. Ifill asked her question, she specifically requested that the candidates focus on AIDS in the United States. But both Mr. Cheney and Senator Edwards spent most of their time talking about AIDS overseas. Mr. Edwards took us to Russia and Africa before commenting on the five million Americans who’ve lost their health care coverage in the last four years and the 45 million Americans without health care coverage.

You don’t have to go to South Africa to see how HIV has affected women of African Descent. You don’t have to go to Kenya to find AIDS orphans. You can witness the devastation of HIV/AIDS in New York, Chicago or Detroit. AIDS is alive and well and killing people less than a five-minute stroll from the hall where the debate was held.

The war on terror and the war in Iraq have dominated the election debate this political season. Yet, it is not unreasonable to expect our government to enhance security without neglecting our health and well being.

HIV/AIDS is devastating Black families all over America. But there is no substantive discourse about HIV/AIDS between the presidential candidates. Whether you favor Bush/Cheney or Kerry/Edwards, there simply are no discussions about the disproportionate impact AIDS is having on African American women, about the high percentage of drug users infected with HIV in the United States who are Black, or the relationship between the mass incarceration of African American men and HIV/AIDS. As the number of African American AIDS casualties continues to grow, what’s increasingly clear is that, in the war on AIDS, there is no such thing as benign neglect. If the candidates aren’t even debating these issues, how can we expect our government, no matter who wins in November, to solve them.

In a few short weeks Americans will select the next “leader of the free world” While the war in Iraq and the war on terror are legitimate concerns, religious extremists with weapons of mass destruction are not the only threats to our national security. There is a killer among us and it doesn’t need a passport or airplanes to attack.

This statement was signed by Essence magazine Editor-in-Chief Diane Weathers and Black AIDS Institute Executive Director Phill Wilson


OP-ED: For the Progressive Media Project op-ed syndicate

A Perilous Silence About AIDS

By Kai Wright

By the end of the day today, more than 20 African-American women will be newly infected with HIV.

Someone tell Vice President Dick Cheney.

On Oct. 5, debate moderator Gwen Ifill asked Cheney what his administration plans to do about the epidemic among African Americans. "I had not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women," Cheney said. "I was not aware that it was that severe an epidemic there, because we have made progress in terms of the overall rate of AIDS infection."

Truth is, there's been little, if any, progress. Each year, there are 40,000 new infections.

HIV remains the third leading cause of death for black women between the ages of 25 and 44, and it's the leading cause of death for black men. Not drugs, not violence, but AIDS.

Under the Bush administration's watch, whatever gains we have made in the fight against AIDS have been threatened.

As new infections mounted each year of their administration, the Bush-Cheney team lobbied Congress not to increase domestic AIDS spending. In fiscal year 2004, they actually cut funding for service centers that help low-income people with HIV get stable housing, drug addiction treatment and primary care, among a host of other things.

Now they want next year's funding to stay at that reduced level.

Meanwhile, health departments around the country have been forced to cut corners in their AIDS programs: shortening the number of days they allow people to stay in drug rehab, limiting the number of new clients their clinics accept and laying off dedicated social workers.

The administration has also been hostile to some prevention efforts. It has strong-armed federal AIDS researchers away from studying certain topics. According to the New York Times, scientists were quietly warned that their funding applications would be rejected if they contained certain words, such as "sex worker" or "men who have sex with men."

The administration has also forced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to back off its promotion of condoms and safer sex. It has blocked scientists from attending international conferences to share their research and learn new strategies from others. And it has punished AIDS groups that questioned these policies by quietly cutting their government contracts and harassing them with threats of audits.

Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards missed an opportunity to point all of these things out following Cheney's admission of ignorance during the debate.

Edwards was right to note that AIDS among black women is part of a larger problem: the lack of accessible and adequate preventive health care. But he, too, continued his campaign's strange silence on the domestic AIDS epidemic.

Sadly, as the epidemic has grown more black and brown-- African-Americans and Latinos represent nearly 70 percent of new infections--the nation has grown less engaged. From news coverage to federal funding to presidential politics, AIDS has been moved to the back burner.

In the end, both campaigns' inability to answer the domestic AIDS question reflects America's dangerously premature declaration of victory over AIDS.

Kai Wright is the editor of This op-ed was syndicated to daily newspapers through the Progressive Media Project.


OP-ED: For the Progressive Media Project op-ed syndicate

Too Many Black Ministers are Fomenting Anti-gay Bigotry

By Kai Wright

An African-American minister in Atlanta is just the latest figure to help the religious right hide behind blackface.

On Dec. 11, the Rev. Eddie Long rallied his congregation in opposition to same-sex marriage. He led thousands of his suburban mega-church congregants on a march through Atlanta's historic black neighborhoods, declaring his rally as a call to "stop the silence" about the myriad ills plaguing black communities.

But his media pronouncements have made it clear that he considers our leading problem to be gay people getting married. With characteristic flare, Long had the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s youngest daughter, Bernice, pass him a torch lit from the eternal flame that adorns King's gravesite.

King would likely have been dismayed.

Civil rights veterans--ranging from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.--loudly proclaim support for same-sex marriage. "Homophobia is as morally wrong and as unacceptable as racism," Coretta Scott King once declared. "We ought to extend to gay and lesbian people the same respect and dignity we claim for ourselves."

But in the mid-1990s, the religious right launched a massive series of anti-gay ballot initiatives. It won those campaigns, in part, by pushing black ministers to the fore.

When the same-sex marriage debate erupted this spring, black ministers again fronted for the rightwing. One Chicago minister even copied an infamous line from the mid-1990s battle over an anti-gay initiative in Cincinnati. "If the KKK was opposing same-sex marriage," Gregory Daniels said at a Family Research Council press conference, "Reverend Daniels would ride with them."

Gay-bashing disturbingly resonates in black neighborhoods. Long's rally drew an estimated 15,000 marchers. And Bush won a surprising 16 percent of the black vote in Ohio, largely by scaring people about same-sex marriage.

Homophobic ministers and their white counterparts often win black supporters by perpetuating the myth that gay rights represent the work of privileged white folks who want to usurp our civil rights legacy.

This recurring show of bigotry will loose its currency only when black lesbians and gays stand up and defend themselves. And that's exactly what we have started doing.

A small but vocal group of black gay and lesbian demonstrators greeted Long's odd parade in Atlanta that weekend. And this summer saw the birth of the National Black Justice Coalition, which has offered a black gay voice to counter each of the right's black puppets of hate.

Long says its time to "stop the silence."

We couldn't agree more.

Kai Wright is the editor of This op-ed was syndicated to daily newspapers nationally through the Progressive Media Project.

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