World Aids Day is both a day of remembrance and a day of hope.
Today serves as an opportunity to remember those we have lost to HIV/AIDS and to celebrate the medical advances that have helped reduce infection rates by more than 50 percent in 13 Sub-Saharan African countries.
We still have major work to do closer to home.
Of the 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States, 129,000 of them live in New York State. Recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo convened a new task force, consisting of leaders from the state's top HIV/AIDS service organizations, to end AIDS in New York State.
The task force has set an admirable goal of reducing the number of new HIV infections to 750 by 2020. For those living with the disease, the 2014 state budget included a 30 percent rent cap to provide affordable housing protection for more than 10,000 low-income New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS and enable hundreds more to move out of shelters.
Before this cap, clients of the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) receiving rental assistance were forced to spend upwards of 70 percent or more of their disability income towards rent, which is unacceptable.
Of the 8,425 complaint cases my office has handled since January, a number involve landlord non-compliance and discrimination against HASA tenants. Additionally, HASA clients regularly complain of HASA being frequently delinquent with rental payments, leaving them in precarious circumstances. In one case, HASA was not only delinquent, but an agent failed to properly submit a client's housing application for public housing. The client sought acceptance into an 80/20 housing program, but was being denied due to resulting late payments.
We cannot justly seek to expand access to HASA and enroll more New Yorkers in the program, if we do not act to improve the program to ensure that tenants receive the benefits and services they are entitled to.
The next step we must take is to expand the enhanced rental, nutrition and transportation assistance provided through HASA to people who are currently HIV positive, but asymptomatic.
This group is currently denied HASA benefits until they become sick, meaning a doctor diagnosed them with AIDS or symptomatic diagnosis due to having two opportunistic infections. This means that people must be sick before they can receive help. Unfortunately, this backwards policy can lead to increased transmission rates by leaving people homeless who are HIV.
Finally, the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is launching a new citywide HIV public testing campaign called New York Knows. Every New Yorker must commit to playing a part in this new campaign. Testing is easy -it is one of the keys to prevention and it must be done regularly.
Going forward, I am focused on rooting out discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS.
One important step we can take is to push for the passage of New York's Anti-Mandatory Mail Order Pharmacy Bill, which will enables New Yorkers, not the insurance industry, to choose whether to fill prescriptions by mail or from a local pharmacy.
A loophole in a 2011 state law meant to ensure consumer choice instead allows the insurance industry to compel New Yorkers to receive their prescriptions by mail. This is a crisis facing countless New Yorkers with life-threatening and chronic conditions -- including HIV.
(Read my June 2014 OpEd in the Albany Times Union, co-written with Janet Weinberg of GMHC on the issue.)
One individual had a relationship with his local pharmacy for 30 years before being forced to use United Healthcare's mail order pharmacy. When his HIV medication was lost in the mail, a representative said that he'd either have to skip his HIV treatment for three weeks or pay over $1,000 for a new prescription.
I am proud of the advances we have made in New York where we have continued a legacy of substantive HIV/AIDS policy, but we must continue the fight to end the epidemic and ensure an AIDS-free generation.