AIDS Action Sends Letters to Vice Presidential Candidates Critiquing Their Comments on the Domestic HIV Epidemic
Washington, DC -- During the vice presidential debate on Tuesday, October 5, moderator Gwen Ifill asked Vice President Cheney the first direct HIV question of the debate cycle: "What should the government's role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?" She also invited Senator Edwards to respond to the same question. Yet neither answered the question. After hearing the debate, AIDS Action Executive Director Marsha Martin sent a letter to each candidate to express concern over their limited command of the critical issues driving the domestic HIV epidemic and their inability to provide a substantive response to Ms. Ifill's question.
The two letters follow.
October 8, 2004
Vice President Dick Cheney
Dear Vice President Cheney:
Tuesday evening during the vice presidential debate, Moderator Gwen Ifill prefaced one of her questions to you by stating, "I will talk to you about health care, Mr. Vice President. ... But in particular, 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." She then asked, "What should the government's role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?"
While you responded to Ms. Ifill, you did not answer her question. She had asked specifically about the domestic epidemic; yet you focused almost exclusively on the global epidemic. You remarked, "Well, this is a great tragedy, Gwen, when you think about the enormous cost here in the United States and around the world of the AIDS epidemic pandemic, really. Millions of lives lost, millions more infected and facing a very bleak future. In some parts of the world, we've got the entire, sort of, productive generation has been eliminated as a result of AIDS, all except for old folks and kids -- nobody to do the basic work that runs an economy. The President has been deeply concerned about it. He has moved and proposed and gotten through the Congress authorization for $15 billion to help in the international effort, to be targeted in those places where we need to do everything we can, through a combination of education as well as providing the kinds of medicines that will help people control the infection."
While we at AIDS Action appreciate the Administration's commitment to addressing the HIV pandemic on the continent of Africa, we are deeply troubled by your lack of knowledge about HIV's impact here in our own country. In your response to Ms. Ifill's question, you stated, "Here in the United States, we've made significant progress. I have not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women. I was not aware that it was -- that they're in the epidemic there, because we have made progress in terms of the overall rate of AIDS infection, and I think primarily through a combination of education and public awareness as well as the development, as a result of research, of drugs that allow people to live longer lives even though they are infected -- obviously we need to do more of that."
The fact that you, as Vice President of the United States, are unaware of the statistic quoted by Ms. Ifill -- that African-American women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of HIV related illnesses than their counterparts -- is incomprehensible and alienating to the Health care clients and professionals as well as the African-American population. For the past several years, AIDS Action has been working with your Administration to educate and inform members of the Administration, Congress, and the general public about the continuing HIV crisis here in the United States. It is surprising to learn that our efforts have failed to inform your understanding of HIV disease and its effect on our country.
The Bush Administration is to be applauded for the work it has done to secure $15 billion over five years for HIV care, treatment, and prevention in fifteen countries. However, your Administration has never articulated a comprehensive plan to address the epidemic here at home, where one million people are living with HIV, half of whom are not receiving regular health care and where 40,000 new HIV cases occur each year. Nor has the Bush Administration addressed the growing HIV epidemic in southern states, in rural and remote communities across the country, among young people, among both men and women, and within all populations -- Latino, African American, Native American, Asian Pacific Islander, and Caucasian. President Bush, in each of the annual federal budgets he has submitted to Congress since taking office, has declined to call for any real increase in domestic HIV and AIDS funding, with the exception of modest increases in the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) that have been proposed for the upcoming fiscal year. In the last three appropriations cycles, the HIV funding (again with the exception of ADAP) has been level funded. In all three cases, it has then been decreased by an across-the-board rescission to all discretionary programs. These cuts continue to come despite the steadily increasing numbers of people living with HIV in the U.S. and the staggering rates of medical inflation which have crippled many health care providers and have forced them to cut back on the services they provide to their HIV patients.
On January 15 of this year, AIDS Action wrote to President Bush. We asked that the President use his upcoming State of the Union address as an opportunity to discuss the HIV epidemic here in the United States. In the same letter, AIDS Action asked for President Bush, Secretary Thompson, and Surgeon General Richard Carmona to assume leadership in domestic HIV efforts by speaking to all audiences in the United States about HIV. We were disappointed when a domestic plan was not unveiled, but we were even more disappointed last night with your evasion of Ms. Ifill's question. What exactly is President Bush's plan for his next Administration to address the HIV epidemic in the United States?
The devastation to the developing world as a direct result of HIV is very real. However, the HIV epidemic in the United States still is one of our nation's greatest crises, especially in communities of color. It is our hope that our Vice President will do his homework and will discover the true picture of the HIV epidemic in the United States. We at AIDS Action stand ready to assist him in this education process.
Marsha A. Martin
Encl. President Bush, January 15, 2004
CC: open letter to the press
October 8, 2004
Senator John Edwards
Dear Senator Edwards:
During the vice presidential debate on Tuesday evening, Moderator Gwen Ifill prefaced one of her questions to Vice President Cheney by stating, "I will talk to you about health care, Mr. Vice President. ... But in particular, 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." She then asked, "What should the government's role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?"
The Vice President did not answer Ms. Ifill's question. He made no mention of what the government's role should be in the domestic HIV epidemic. Instead, he noted the Administration's accomplishments in the global epidemic.
Once Vice President Cheney had completed his remarks, Ms. Ifill gave you an opportunity to respond to the same question. Yet you also dedicated most of your allotted time to a discussion of HIV's impact on other continents. When you finally turned your attention to HIV in the United States, your only comment was, "Here at home we need to do much more." You then used the opportunity to transition into a broader discussion of the uninsured. You stated, "And the Vice President spoke about doing research, making sure we have the drugs available, making sure that we do everything possible to have prevention. But it's a bigger question than that. You know, we have five million Americans who've lost their health care coverage in the last four years 45 million Americans [are] without health care coverage."
While we at AIDS Action share your concern for the rising number of uninsured Americans, we were disappointed that you so readily shifted the debate's focus away from HIV. Ms. Ifill asked the most direct, important question about HIV in the debate cycle, and you provided an inadequate response. AIDS Action sent comments for the Democratic platform on the domestic HIV epidemic, however, it does not appear that you or the Kerry/Edwards campaign staff reviewed and retained the information we sent you. Moreover, you did not mention that the Kerry campaign has pledged to work with the scientific community to address HIV across the country. You did not mention that Vanessa Kerry recently assured attendees at a National Association of People With AIDS (NAPWA) conference that a Kerry Administration would double the funding for domestic HIV programs.
We were very surprised and shocked that you did not address the inequities and urgent needs that exist in our epidemic. Ms. Ifill spotlighted a true and startling disparity when she said, "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." You should have addressed that point directly. You should have mentioned that you knew HIV is disproportionately affecting communities of color, and African American women in particular.
You missed an important opportunity to educate the nation about our own HIV epidemic. There are one-quarter of a million people living with HIV in the United States who are unaware of their HIV infection. You should have called for all listening to the debate to get tested and learn their status. Education is the key. When people understand their infection and are in regular HIV care, they are less likely to transmit this virus to others. This is a public health epidemic, and you could have explained that to the American people. You missed an important opportunity to tell Americans about the devastating impact HIV is having on your own state of North Carolina, as well as what a Kerry Administration would do in response to the domestic HIV epidemic.
Though we have come a long way from the early days of the HIV epidemic when hundreds of people were dying daily, HIV in the United States continues to grow by at least 40,000 new infections per year and people are still dying. That is simply unacceptable. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) prevention plan to reduce by half the number of annual new HIV infections to 20,000 cannot be accomplished without an increase in awareness and funding. Your answer Tuesday night lacked in both areas.
Americans, who have led the world in responding to HIV and in developing life-saving solutions, are entitled to educated answers. AIDS Action stands ready to assist you in crafting a message and a response for the next time you are asked a question about the domestic HIV epidemic. You owe your educated answer to all those people living with and affected by HIV.
Marsha A. Martin
Encl. comments for Democratic platform
CC: open press