Defunding Planned Parenthood Will Be Disastrous for the HIV Epidemic—Why Aren't We Talking About That?

Designer Tracy Reese experienced the devastation HIV/AIDS can wreak first hand. So she's speaking out to ensure that Trumpcare doesn't pass—because no one should have to die from a treatable disease.

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The author at the Planned Parenthood 100th Anniversary Gala, May 2017.
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I vividly remember a time when whispers of HIV filled people with fear. I will never forget the devastation, the scorched earth that AIDS left in its wake: To have a friend with you one day and taken the next. To visit friends in the hospital and see them waste away week by week, becoming shells of the vibrant and beautiful people they once were.

During the initial epidemic in the early 1980s, a dear friend and mentor of mine was diagnosed and, like many, was whisked away to succumb to the disease in secret. I remember my heart wanting to be with him, to be his supporter and friend. But this disease pushed people into the shadows. His boyfriend, uncertain of how HIV was spread and wanting to protect me, allowed only glimpses through a doorway.

But I also remember seeing this deadly disease galvanize communities to fight for treatment, and to fight for dignity and respect for those who had been diagnosed. As new drugs entered the market, HIV was no longer a guaranteed death sentence. For those who could afford these treatments, living with HIV was not only a possibility but a reality.

There has been incredible progress in the United States in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and our nation saw even further gains when Obamacare expanded Medicaid coverage, increased subsidies for private plans, and mandated that insurers cover essential prevention, testing, and treatment services. And yet, now Trumpcare is callously threatening to block people with Medicaid from accessing care at Planned Parenthood—one of the nation's leading HIV testing providers. The bill would derail the progress we've made and send us back to a time when it was nearly impossible for people living with HIV to get the care they needed.

In 2015 alone, Planned Parenthood provided more than 650,000 HIV tests.

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As time marches on, the fear, the sadness, and the pain from the early years of the HIV epidemic has slowly faded from many Americans' memories, but the threat is still there. According to the CDC, more than 1.1 million American men and women are living with HIV, and 1 in 7 of them don't even know it. We are still actively fighting the HIV epidemic, and Planned Parenthood is instrumental in that effort. In 2015 alone, the organization provided more than 650,000 HIV tests. All of Planned Parenthood's more than 600 health centers offer HIV testing and education, and more than one-third also offer HIV prevention, including PrEP, a daily pill that can help prevent HIV.

Planned Parenthood is there for all people because HIV does not discriminate. I remember the shock of a dear friend's diagnosis in 1984. The misperception at the time was that this was a "gay man's disease." My friend "Dee"—the first woman I knew that had been diagnosed—was a young, funny, vibrant woman of color. She got sick so quickly…and then she was gone.

Even now, decades later, women of color are among the groups of people disproportionately affected by HIV in the U.S. In many communities—like some communities of color, immigrant communities, LGBTQ communities, and rural areas—Planned Parenthood is the only health care option. This is especially true in areas with provider shortages, where it can be difficult to access non-discriminatory and non-judgmental care that also accepts Medicaid.

This dangerous bill highlights the startling reality of how men in Washington—almost all white—are willing to play politics with people's lives. The Senate shrouded its efforts to replace and repeal Obamacare in secrecy, and now that Americans have finally seen the bill, our worst fears have been confirmed: The bill would have a devastating effect on the fight against HIV/AIDS, which has been showing signs of promise in the past decade (the CDC observed a decline of 19 percent in the annual rate of HIV diagnoses in the U.S. from 2005 to 2014). Trumpcare would curb access to HIV testing and treatment to anyone covered by Medicaid, and would allow states the option of waiving essential health benefits, including services people living with HIV rely on, such as prescription drug coverage and chronic disease management.

Without insurance coverage, HIV medications can cost between $19,000 to $20,000 a year.

Republican's previous attempt to pass this cold-hearted bill was stalled because it was estimated to cut coverage for 22 million people, hampering the ability of Americans with low incomes to access HIV testing and cutting off those who are diagnosed with HIV from accessing treatment options. HIV treatments have significantly lengthened the life expectancy for people living with the disease, but the majority of people living with HIV do not have it under control—often because they don't have access to care. Without coverage, HIV medications can cost between $19,000 to $20,000 a year.

So many of us have worked to bring HIV out of the shadows and now it's time for our elected officials to join us. As a country, we cannot afford to play with the lives of millions of our most vulnerable people. If you believe, as I do, that we shouldn't cut off care to our family, friends, and neighbors living with HIV, contact your senators (202-224-3121)and tell them to vote 'No' on Trumpcare.

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