Southern states lead the nation in rates of HIV infection and AIDS deaths, explains Clinical Professor Carolyn McAllaster, founder and director of the AIDS Legal Project. Rural poverty and social stigma mean southerners impacted by the disease have few resources to turn to, she adds.
For the past sixteen years the AIDS Legal Project has been a part of the solution; students represent individual clients across North Carolina with legal issues ranging from end-of-life planning to discrimination suits. In the new AIDS Policy Clinic, students work on policy initiatives aimed at increasing access to quality, comprehensive health care for low-income individuals living with HIV/AIDS and their families.
“The resources have not always followed the epidemic,” McAllaster says. She praises President Barack Obama for launching the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS) in July 2010. However, the main focus of the NHAS is the 12 Cities Project which directs the federal response and funds to population centers where AIDS is most prevalent but lacks similar coverage for rural areas and areas with high numbers of new HIV infections, she points out.
The Ford Foundation contacted the AIDS Legal Project directly for help in building an advocacy team to ensure the next phase of the NHAS would reach hard-hit southeastern states. According to McAllaster, the foundation has long had an interest in fostering HIV and AIDS advocacy in the hard-hit southeastern states. McAllaster and her team have already recruited a steering committee of HIV/AIDS advocates throughout the South and have developed a research/data collection agenda.
“The thing I am most excited about with this grant is that we’re working with the Duke Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research,” said McAllaster. “They are going to be pulling together comprehensive statistics and research about the epidemic in the South. Not just where the most HIV cases are or the number of AIDs death but also looking at the factors that feed an epidemic, like poverty, homelessness, and the number of uninsured. Much of the data is out there but it has not really been collected in one place.”
This pioneering research will inform the initiative’s policy proposals. Beginning in early 2012, the AIDS Legal Project, steering committee members and partners with expertise on the federal level such as Harvard Law School’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation will advocate with policy makers at the White House, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other relevant agencies for needed resources. “It’s definitely moving fast,” said McAllaster, laughing. “It’s important work and it’s going to be fun.”
Broadly speaking, students enrolled in the new AIDS Policy Clinic are also working to inform policy recommendations at the state and county levels, gaining hands-on experience in current and emerging health policy issues. Students will conduct legal and fact-based research to inform policy recommendations, produce in-depth reports, comment letters, presentations and draft legislation or regulatory guidance.
Several students who worked with clients last year through the AIDS Legal Project have joined the policy clinic. “The students who are doing this are grounded in the cases,” McAllaster says. “What happens when you deal with several of these individual cases is that you see the need for systemic change.”
- Nicole Landguth ’13