Guest Post by Marni von Wilpert, Skadden Legal Fellow for the Mississippi Center for Justice
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first diagnosis of HIV/AIDS, and this week is the first time the United States is opening its doors to host the International AIDS Conference in over two decades, as President Obama finally lifted the 22-year ban that prohibited travel visas for HIV-positive visitors to the United States. While HIV is a global issue, the United States itself has over one million people living with HIV/AIDS, with another 50,000 new infections every year. But on the eve of this multinational conference that is expected to draw over 20,000 participants, there was a much smaller and highly specialized conference held in Washington D.C. this past weekend. The participants were attorneys, and the topic of the day was the legal rights of people living with HIV/AIDS.
This HIV Law and Practice conference, sponsored by the American Bar Association (ABA), is a national gathering of attorneys who all strive to combat the illegal discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend consultation with an attorney as part of a general medical treatment program for patients who are newly diagnosed with HIV (known by advocates as the HIV Legal Checkup). Never in its history has the CDC recommended legal services for any particular disease or illness. Accordingly, legal services centers, law firms and pro bono attorneys around the country are working to assist people who face employment discrimination, housing discrimination, and breaches of confidentiality all due to a person's HIV positive status.
One of the primary topics discussed at the ABA Conference was how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will improve access to healthcare for people living with HIV/AIDS. By prohibiting preexisting condition restrictions for health insurance coverage, the ACA will ensure a person's HIV-positive status can no longer be used by health insurance companies to restrict coverage. The ACA also abolishes lifetime or annual caps on healthcare coverage, which will benefit patients who often require complicated treatment regimens to treat advanced AIDS diagnoses. Speakers such as Julie Scofield, the Executive Director of the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, explained the importance of the Medicaid expansion provision of the ACA and its ability to extend medical treatment to thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS.
The ABA conference also addressed the continuing need for legal services attorneys to provide direct legal services in the field of illegal discrimination based upon HIV status. Nowhere are the effects of HIV discrimination more apparent than in the Deep South, where the highest rates of new HIV infections and AIDS diagnoses are found and where 43% of people living with HIV in the United States reside. Megan McLemore of Human Rights Watch spoke at the ABA conference, and explained that stigma, discrimination, and a lack of medical resources in a state such as Mississippi create a system in which only 50% of people living with HIV in the state have adequate medical treatment and care.
The Mississippi Center for Justice is addressing this civil rights crisis by providing free legal services for people living with HIV/AIDS. The primary legal challenges we have identified in Mississippi are HIV-related employment and housing discrimination, and we are working with local community advocates and national law firm pro bono attorneys to fight for justice for Mississippians living with HIV/AIDS.
For additional information, you can check out the following resources:
- Susan Blumenthal Making AIDS History: Achieving an HIV-Free Generation, Huffington Post Healthy Living (July 23, 2012)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV in the United States: At a Glance (March 2012)
- Southern HIV/AIDS Strategy Initiative, HIV/AIDS Epidemic in the South Reaches Crisis Proportions in Last Decade 2-3 (2011)
- Megan McLemore, Human Rights Watch: Rights at Risk - State Response to HIV in Mississippi 15 (2011)
- And for more on how partnerships between lawyers and doctors can help improve health care access and outcomes in general, check out an earlier blog post by Brie Clark titled, Law is Good Medicine.
About the author:
Marni von Wilpert serves as the Skadden Legal Fellow for the Mississippi Center for Justice, providing legal representation for people living with HIV/AIDS primarily in the Delta. Prior to joining the Center, Marni served as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana working as a community advocate for HIV/AIDS prevention. Marni's prior legal experience includes serving as a law clerk at the Texas Civil Rights Project, in which she focused on accessibility rights for people living with disabilities, and as an intern at the San Diego Legal Aid Society where she worked to help domestic violence survivors. Marni graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a B.A. in Peace and Conflict Studies, and obtained a J.D. at the Fordham University School of Law. You can reach Marni at email@example.com.