Despite the rain, hundreds gathered at the Connecticut State Capitol on Tuesday, May 19 for the state's 15th annual AIDS Awareness Day to advocate for prevention services, housing programs, and two bills: H.B 6856, which would allow pharmacists to prescribe and dispense Naloxone, a life-saving medication that reverses opiate overdose, and S.B. 24, an act that would make the state's health insurance marketplace more transparent while preventing discriminatory health care practices.
From the Pacific Islands to Boston to upstate New York, other communities throughout the world rallied for continued prevention efforts and services for those with HIV and AIDS. About 10,700 Connecticut residents currently live with these diseases.
Victoria Veltri, Connecticut's Healthcare Advocate and a board member of the state's health insurance marketplace, spoke about the inaccessibility of certain medications that are crucial to the management of HIV and AIDS. For those not on Medicaid, she explained, these medications are often placed on the highest tiers of health insurance formularies, rendering them unaffordable. Veltri also urged advocates to demand continued funding for HIV and AIDS prevention and services. She drove home the message that Connecticut residents need better access to drugs, drugs should not only be available on the highest tiers, and discrimination in health insurance benefits needs to be eradicated.
Eighty-five thousand dollars for HIV and AIDS prevention and services are at stake in upcoming budget decisions, and advocates planned to talk with legislators in support of the Appropriations Committee budget, which would restore these funds to the Department of Health.
Angel G. and Ashley, two Connecticut residents who have been managing HIV for decades, also spoke at the rally. Angel was given three months to live in 1997, and he praised Connecticut's efforts in funding syringe exchange programs, which he called life-changing. Ashley was born with HIV, and she stood in front of the crowd with her daughter, who is free from the disease. She urged those with HIV and AIDS to "come out" and fight stigma.
"It doesn't make you, and it doesn't break you," she said. "Don't be in that shell. Come out. Don't be afraid."
Governor Dannel Malloy and Lieutenant Governor Nancy Wyman both made appearances at AIDS Awareness Day. Wyman commended advocates on their work and urged them to keep fighting, and Malloy made a much-applauded announcement that he was writing to Congress that day to press them to lift the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs.
"What's happened in America is that heroin has become cheaper than just about any other drug," he said. "As a result, we are seeing people infected with AIDS as a result of using dirty needles, probably at numbers we haven't seen since the 1980s."
Karina Danvers, Director of Connecticut's New England AIDS Education and Training Center, recalled times in the 80s when she and her friends had to split their mediations in order to stay alive, making a pointed comparison to accessibility issues with HIV and AIDS medications today. She commended the state for taking the lead in funding syringe exchange programs, which she said has resulted in a 30 percent reduction in HIV rates.
"Act up, fight back, fight AIDS," chanted of Shawn Lang, Deputy Director of Programs and Policy of AIDS Connecticut, at Tuesday's rally—the powerful mantra of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), one of the oldest international AIDS activist organizations.
"People with HIV, their allies, put themselves on the line against incredible odds so that, since the 1990s, people living with HIV have access to effective medication, health care, housing, prevention, and syringe exchanges," said Lang. "It's important that we keep doing what we're doing until we're all safe."
Learn more about how S.B. 24 will improve the lives of those with HIV and AIDS here.