By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
LANSING – On May 9, Michigan's state legislators were given a chance to see the face of HIV/AIDS.
The opportunity came courtesy of the HIV/AIDS Alliance of Michigan, a coalition of community-based AIDS service organizations that has existed since the late 1980s, during a daylong series of events to update lawmakers on the needs of Michigan citizens living with the disease. The organization was able to hold this year's annual HIV/AIDS Michigan Legislative Update at the state capitol courtesy of Representative Ed Gaffney (R-Grosse Pointe), who sponsored it for the second year in a row. Gaffney chairs the House of Representatives' Health Policy Committee.
The most moving program during the day of events, according to HIV/AIDS Alliance of Michigan board President Barbara Murray, was the luncheon at which four Michigan citizens who are living with AIDS spoke to legislators.
The panel included a 45-year-old white gay man from Battle Creek, a woman from Grand Rapids whose 10-year-old son was born HIV positive, an 82-year-old African American Detroit grandmother, and a 17-year-old African-American high school senior from Detroit who was born HIV positive.
"I think it was safe to say you could have heard a pin drop in the room during that panel presentation," said Murray, who is also the executive director of AIDS Partnership Michigan.
"I think our point was [that] there are Michigan citizens living with AIDS and they are not who you think they are," Murray said. She said that the panel was able to tell legislators, "We are citizens, we are taxpayers and we want you to know our story."
"I have to say probably that was what I heard the most about when I went after lunch to meet with individual legislators," said Jimena Loveluck, executive director of Ypsilanti's HIV/AIDS Resource Center and the Alliance's treasurer. "Those who attended the lunch clearly were very moved and felt like they learned a tremendous amount from those four people, who reflect the diversity of the AIDS epidemic in Michigan. Clearly, the panel had an impact – it put a face to the issue for many of the legislators and their staffers."
According to Murray, approximately 75 legislators and legislative staff members attended the luncheon, which was followed by individual lobbying of legislators by Alliance members.
"There were three things we wanted to make them aware of," during the luncheon and lobbying, said Murray. "[First is] our ongoing concern that there be enough funding for the AIDS drug assistance program and that we may be coming to the year when we will need more funding – there may not be enough federal funding to cover the bill. We are aware of other states where there were waiting lists for AIDS drugs, and I don't think any of us could sleep if that happened here. Our second issue is that another 'conscientious objector' bill has been introduced, and we expressed our continued and ongoing concern that such bills continue to be presented. Our last issue was just to make the state legislature aware of the national issue of renewal of the Ryan White CARE Act, which is the primary funding source for AIDS care services. This isn't something these folks can do anything about directly, but it's something that they need to be very aware of."
Cindy Bolden-Calhoun, executive director of the Community Health Awareness Group and Alliance vice president and secretary, said the event was a success.
"It's always a great opportunity when you [can] speak directly with the people who are a making the decisions – to look them face to face, eye to eye, and speak with them about what is important to your community," she said. "When you're able to do that type of advocacy you put a face on the issue. It's not just a line in the budget."
"Our point is not to let the legislature forget. That's why we do this every year," said Murray.