Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Southern Epidemic

By Anna Meghan Nunn
Intern from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Department of Public and International Affairs

The ADAP Advocacy Association (aaa+®) released an important White Paper on the impact of HIV/AIDS in the South, entitled “THE SOUTHERN EPIDEMIC: Are the South’s cultural, political and societal barriers making it difficult for public health programs, such as the AIDS Drug Assistance Programs, to function effectively in this region?” Its purpose is to examine why people living with HIV/AIDS in this region of the country often must overcome major obstacles simply to access basic healthcare needs, more so than any other area.

Map of the United States, with the southern states colored in red and the AIDS Ribbon moving toward these states.

During “The Perfect Storm” — a label used by ADAP stakeholders to describe the severity of the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) waiting list crisis that ravaged the program from 2008-2012 —nowhere in the U.S. was the HIV/AIDS crisis more apparent than the South. At any given moment in the crisis, nearly 95% of the people living with HIV/AIDS being denied access to care and treatment resided in the South. At the height of the ADAP crisis, eight of the twelve states that instituted waiting lists were in the South; most of them in the Deep South.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are approximately 1,144,500 people aged 13 years and older living with HIV infection in the U.S. today.  The southeastern United States has seen a disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS in their communities, especially over the last decade. In 2011, eight of the southern states accounted for the ten states with the highest new HIV infections in the country.  Furthermore, southeastern states accounted for 50% of HIV infections that year.  To put that in perspective, it is important to note that this region accounts for only 37% of the U.S. population. There are numerous contributing factors behind these alarming numbers. This region of the country has historically been known to have retained a deep and distressing culture, evidenced by violent civil rights struggles, high poverty rates, poor education systems, deeply engrained religious traditions, and limited access to healthcare.

In the South many societal, economic, and geographic constraints collide to create a “Perfect Storm,” which ultimately creates barriers to healthcare. Some of these factors include:

Race and discrimination
Poverty and education
Sexual orientation and stigma

The complex dynamics of these factors not only impact access to adequate healthcare, but create a great deal of stress for State ADAPs in this region. By race African Americans are the largest group affected by HIV/AIDS. In fact, in 2010 new HIV infection rates among African Americans were 8 times that of whites. This is a trend we are beginning to see within the Latino community as well. The South is also home to a large amount of individuals living in poverty. In addition, this region typically has below average literacy levels. Both poverty and poor education are associated with lower access to healthcare and negative health outcomes. An additional cultural factor weighing on HIV/AIDS infection rates in the South is the Evangelical attitudes and traditional conservative values associated with the religious South. These traditional conservative values regarding sexual orientation can foster a climate of stigma and shame toward the largest group of people living with HIV/AIDS: men who have sex with men (MSM). These societal and cultural factors in the southern states combine to create barriers to health care.

Access to Healthcare
Societal factors are only a part of the complex issue regarding the disproportionate rates of HIV/AIDS infections in the South. The lack of access to healthcare is also a major contributing factor this crisis in the South.

This leaves many people living with HIV/AIDS in the South only two options for health care: Medicaid and the Ryan White CARE Act programs like state ADAPs. Unfortunately, it is still too early to tell how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will play out in the months or years to come with regard to this population. While the ACA has afforded many the opportunity to gain insurance coverage through Marketplace Exchange programs, many low-income people living with HIV/AIDS are falling into Medicaid gaps. This is a result of the southern states’ rejection of federal funding to expand Medicaid eligibility to more citizens. With the exception of Arkansas, all of the “Deep South” states have made the decision not to expand their Medicaid coverage.

This leaves thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS to rely on Ryan White services like ADAPs for health care coverage. However, there is cause for concern as southern states have historically been less than generous in the amount of voluntary funds they provide to their state ADAPs. For example, nationally states contribute an estimated 14% to the total ADAP budget.   However, southern states have typically contribute lower than average or not at all. Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky have never contributed any state funds to the ADAP programs. In 2009 South Carolina contributed 11% and Florida contributed only 9%. The recent economic recession and subsequent rises in unemployment rates has increased the demand for ADAP services. Unfortunately the recession also has resulted in deeper budget cuts in southern states. The state of North Carolina saw their ADAP budget cut by $8 million in the fiscal years 2014-15.

These imminent budget cuts have forced state ADAPs to initiate cost-containing measures like enrollment caps and reduced formularies. The unfortunate unintended consequences of these cost-containing measures is the looming threat of national ADAP waiting lists, something the programs have been successful at reducing and nearly eliminating in recent years.

CLICK HERE to download the White Paper: “THE SOUTHERN EPIDEMIC: Are the South’s cultural, political and societal barriers making it difficult for public health programs, such as the AIDS Drug Assistance Programs, to function effectively in this region?” 

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