Mass. Politicians Step Out in Support of HIV/AIDS
On Sunday, June 2, ten thousand people gathered in Boston to walk, run, and raise money to fight HIV and AIDS. The 28th annual AIDS Walk and 5K Run raised over $600,000 dollars for AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts and drew supporters of all ages and walks of life. Among those in attendance were some prominent Massachusetts politicians, who were ready to lend a hand and show support for New England's largest and oldest AIDS organization.
Mayor Menino, who attends the event every year, had to sit out due to health issues, but other local political leaders were able to step up and speak out on behalf of AIDS Action. Congressman Joe Kennedy III of the Fourth District of Massachusetts and State Representative Jeffrey Sanchez of the 15th Congressional District spoke at opening the event's ceremonies. Both staunch supporters of equality and HIV/AIDS services, they rallied the massive crowd with words of encouragement and promises to keep working toward making AIDS history.
"We are so excited to have them here," said Rebecca Haag, President and CEO of AIDS Action Committee. "Joe Kennedy has been great on our issues, a real advocate for HIV. And Representative Sanchez has been a star in trying to tackle health disparities in HIV."
EDGE caught up with the two statesmen before the Walk, who were happy to talk about their involvement in the event and their personal commitment to HIV/AIDS work and to the LGBT community.
"I was thrilled to get the invitation to participate this year," Congressman Kennedy told EDGE. "Almost everybody that I know has a loved one or family friend who has been touched directly by HIV and AIDS. It was an issue that my uncle championed as well when he was in the senate, so I'm honored to be a part of it and honored to do whatever I can."
The new Congressman with the famous family took over the seat once held by equality frontrunner and political veteran Barney Frank. Though he has some big shoes to fill, he proudly supporting the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and co-sponsoring the Equal Rights Amendment and the Voter Empowerment Act, and it seems he has accepted that challenge.
Kennedy's commitment to these issues is apparent. On arrival to Washington, the Equality Caucus was one of the first he joined. He has written touching op-eds in support of LGBT equality for Bay Windows, given words of support at the AIDS Walk and will be participating in Boston Pride for the second year in a row, this time marching alongside his friend and former roommate, Jason Collins, the NBA veteran who made history this year after he became the first active male professional athlete in a major North American team sport to come out publicly as gay.
The Democrat has also been an advocate for health care access and for continued funding for research, specifically for the National Institutes of Health.
"NIH Funding and funding for basic research and medical research is a top priority for me, and it's a top priority for Massachusetts," said Kennedy.
"We've seen that Research can yield major dividends and that should act as incentive for us to keep pushing. We've made great strides reducing the infection rates and instances of HIV but we've still got a long way to go. This is a cause that we have to keep the spotlight on."
Indeed, in Massachusetts, organizations like AIDS Action have made tremendous headway in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Since 1999, the new infection rate has dropped by 53 percent, saving countless lives and an estimated $2 billion in healthcare costs.
"A lot of that has to do with the fact that people have healthcare and it has to do with the community services we provide," Haag said of the remarkable figures, "That is what’s so exciting. If we could just up the efforts we can actually defeat HIV."
Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, who has been in office since 2003 and Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health since 2009, shares this enthusiasm for the work that AAC does.
"The great thing about AIDS Action is that it’s a national community-based organization," said Sanchez. "It’s located in a very diverse and active community which they’re a part of. But to also be a part of national policy is a very big deal. The country looks to AIDS Action to see what the successes are and what we have done here in Massachusetts."
Sanchez, who represents Jamaica Plain, where the AIDS Action office is located, said that their dramatically successful work has been through engagement, communication, and through a one-on-one approach in the community.
In addition to supporting HIV and AIDS work, the 15th District Rep has been a steadfast supporter for equality. Sanchez’s first major vote in office was one in support of marriage equality. He has also co-sponsored the Mass Transgender Rights Bill.
And next on the advocacy agenda for Sanchez? Budget.
"We want to make sure we keep the Health Promotion/Disease and Prevention line item at a funding level that we can make sure we fund all the programs for HIV and AIDS," Sanchez said.
Funding for HIV/AIDS programs has been cut by 38 percent since 2000. And because of the new infections and longer life expectancies for those diagnosed with HIV, the number of people living with HIV has increased by 44 percent.
According to Haag, access to healthcare is one of the major reasons that Massachusetts has been so successful in capping the number of new infections.
"Having access to healthcare can really make a difference in chronic and behavioral diseases and particularly HIV," Haag advised. "So if states want to eliminate HIV then they should implement the healthcare reform package, particularly the Medicaid package, and make sure people who have low incomes have access to healthcare."
Haag is hopeful that the money raised through the AIDS Walk this year will be able to fill a large portion of that funding gap.
To learn more about AIDS Action Committee, visit AAC.org