In June, six members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS resigned, citing the administration’s lack of concern about the HIV/AIDS community. HIV advocate and community organizer Gina Brown is one of the six who stepped down.
The New Orleans native and advocate has worked in the field of HIV for over a decade and has been living with HIV for 23 years, and has gone undetectable for the last 15, she told NewsOne. She has served on the Access to Care Committee, which is charged in part with looking at factors that keep people in care, including diet, housing, air and water quality.
In a recent interview, she said was honored to serve on the council, but the House of Representative’s health care bill (which is now in the Senate and dubbed the Better Care Reconciliation Act) was the last straw. With the proposed Affordable Healthcare Act repeal, proposed budget cuts to CDC programs like Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS (HOPWA), and massive cuts to Medicaid (which supports more than 40 percent of those with HIV), many gains in the fight against HIV and AIDS could be erased.
“So I think about all the people not as fortunate as I am. When we take things from them, those are the people who are going to die,” Brown told NewsOne. “I just don’t want to die. I don’t want my friends to die. I know that sounds dramatic, but that is the reality. And those are the people I’m fighting for.”
Brown said that the administrations’ lack of engagement on HIV/AIDS shows that it’s not a priority for the president. The issue is critical for people of color, especially African Americans, who In 2015 accounted for 45 percent of HIV diagnoses, though they comprise 12 percent of the US population, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Brown echoes concerns expressed by a former colleague who in June penned an op-ed, titled “Trump Doesn’t Care about HIV, We’re Outta Here,” that appeared in Newsweek:
“The Trump Administration has no strategy to address the on-going HIV/AIDS epidemic, seeks zero input from experts to formulate HIV policy, and—most concerning—pushes legislation that will harm people living with HIV and halt or reverse important gains made in the fight against this disease.”
But the White House pushed back on their claims. After their abrupt departure in June, Sean Spicer said during a White House news conference that he did not know if the council members who resigned would be replaced. However, he defended Trump against accusations that he didn’t care about HIV or AIDS, according to The Washington Post:
“Well, I mean, respectfully, the president cares tremendously about that and the impact it has,” Spicer told reporters at the briefing. “Obviously, the individuals that he’s appointed here in the White House have been in communication with various stakeholders in that community to help develop policies and formulas going forward, but we’re going to continue to do what we can from a government standpoint.”
Brown has employer-based health insurance, but she can remember before the ACA when she paid more in premiums because of her pre-existing condition. She said without adequate health care, the medication she and others need to remain healthy would be too expensive.
During President Barack Obama‘s presidency, the White House released statements on national and international AIDS Awareness Days, and PACHA had a direct line to the Oval Office. However, on the day of Trump’s inauguration, the Office of National AIDS Policy website was scrubbed of all information.
“And I’m not trying to act like the previous administration walked on water or anything,” Brown said. “But I have to say, when it came to HIV, in the community, we knew that administration cared.”
Even during the 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton met with HIV community advocates. Candidate Trump did not. And roughly six months into the new administration, Brown doubts that the administration will start to show concern for the HIV/AIDS community.
For Brown, the lack of attention to this issue indicates that the Trump administration sees no political gain from addressing HIV and AIDS. Those with the conditions aren’t seen as a vital voting bloc. Moreover, Brown sees racial politics at play, as it’s the case with the sympathy some politicians lavish on opioid users compared to the call for harsh punishment of other drug users.
“It’s not different from the crack epidemic. It’s Black and Brown people then, and Black and Brown people now. The most gains we made was in the early ‘90s, when White men were the majority of the epidemic,” Brown stated. “But then we went through a period where presidents were doing things about HIV/AIDS, because it wasn’t about the people impacted it was about the epidemic. And now we are going backwards.”
Although she no longer works on policy in a bureaucratic setting, Brown plans to keep moving forward with her advocacy. As the regional organizer with the Southern AIDS Coalition, Brown feels she can now do things that she couldn’t do while serving on PACHA. Brown says she is committed to fighting, no matter who is in the White House.
“I was an advocate and activist before I started policy work, so I’ll continue that work,” Brown said. “I don’t play well in the sandbox, so I decided to take the sand out the box.”