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Protecting the Ryan White Program | Commentary

More than 25 years ago, a young boy named Ryan White stole the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere when he was diagnosed with a rare and mysterious disease called AIDS. A lot has changed since the disease claimed the lives of Ryan and countless others. There are now more than 1.1 million people living with HIV or AIDS in the U.S. today — the highest level of people ever in our country living with HIV. That’s largely due to both people living longer and the level of new infections, roughly around 50,000, each year.

Fortunately today with antiretroviral medications, people with HIV can live relatively healthy lives if they have access to and remain in care and on treatment. We know now that HIV treatment is undeniably also HIV prevention. When a person is on HIV or AIDS drugs their virus is suppressed and it prevents HIV transmission to others. Due to the positive effects of treatment, scientists now believe that we have the ability and knowledge to end AIDS if people are first diagnosed through testing and then linked to and retained in care and treatment. Sounds simple enough, but the truth is we still have a long way to go.

Looking at the numbers, we have far to go in turning the scientists’ vision of ending AIDS into a reality. In fact, more than 200,000 people in the U.S. are unaware they are HIV positive, but even after they are aware of their HIV status, 66 percent of those infected are linked to care. Digging deeper, the numbers get worse: only 37 percent are retained in care, 33 percent prescribed antiretroviral treatment, and only a mere 25 percent ever achieve the ultimate goal of viral suppression.

In order to get closer to ending AIDS, we must continue our country’s commitment to adequately funding those efforts, like the Ryan White Program, which we know is playing an instrumental role in helping people with HIV live relatively healthy lives and reducing the number of new infections. The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program provides medical care, medications and essential services to low-income, uninsured and underinsured people with HIV and AIDS. It has often being referred to as “the payer of last resort.” It is the safety net that provides treatment to those who, without the program, would never be able to afford the life-saving medications available today.

Today, with the implementation of health care reform, the Affordable Care Act, some people who previously had no coverage other than from Ryan White can now get coverage from expanded Medicaid, if they qualify, or from the marketplace. However, Medicaid expansion is a state option and only half the states are moving forward with the expansion at this time. In those states, where many of the HIV positive individuals in the Ryan White Program live, the principal provider of care and treatment is the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program. Even in the age of the ACA, it is essential for these individuals that we continue to fund this critical link to care.

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