Betty Price needs to apologize

  • by Editorial Board
  • Wednesday October 25, 2017
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While former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was jetting off to various locales on the taxpayers' dime, his wife, Betty Price, was up to something more sinister. A state representative from Atlanta, Price (R) caused an uproar last week when she pondered quarantining people living with AIDS in order to decrease HIV transmissions in Georgia, which in 2013 ranked second in the nation for new HIV cases, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Price was attending a committee meeting examining the barriers to adequate health care.

"What are we legally able to do? I don't want to say the quarantine word, but I guess I just said it," Price asked Pascale Wortley, the head of the Georgia Department of Public Health's HIV Epidemiology Section, as seen in a video of the meeting.

"Is there an ability, since I would guess that public dollars are expended heavily in prophylaxis and treatment of this condition, so we have a public interest in curtailing the spread," she reasoned. "Are there any methods, legally, that we could do that would curtail the spread?"

Wortley did not address the issue of quarantining PWAs. But Price, a former anesthesiologist who has served on the boards of the medical associations of Atlanta and Georgia, surely should know better.

As San Francisco has demonstrated with the Getting to Zero initiative, treating people as soon as possible after they've tested positive is key. Starting HIV-negative people on PrEP has also shown to be effective in preventing HIV transmission. Those are two options that Price should have been told about at that committee meeting. Both are legal, which seems to be a particular concern of hers. Rather than quarantining HIV-positive people, Price should be focused on making sure state resources are spent on treatment and prevention. San Francisco public health officials reported last month that HIV infections here dropped 16 percent in 2016; in 2015 there was a decrease of 15 percent. Treatment and prevention work.

Anyone who has studied HIV/AIDS in the U.S. knows that rates are higher in the South. That's attributable, in part, to conservative politicians who don't want to spend public dollars on effective programs and on a general lack of leadership among Republicans, who dominate statehouses there. The federal government has stepped into this void, resulting in more federal funds through the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Modernization Act being distributed in the South, at the expense of cities like San Francisco. That's why local officials regularly have to backfill HIV/AIDS funding here.

Price's flirtation with quarantine brought a quick rebuke from LGBT advocates.

"WHAT YEAR IS IT," tweeted Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which regularly represents people living with HIV.

Gay rocker Elton John expressed alarm. "Rep. Betty Price's comments about people living with HIV are horrific, discriminatory, and astonishingly ill-informed," he said in a statement released by the Elton John AIDS Foundation. "As a doctor and elected official from a state where people are still contracting HIV at an alarming rate, Mrs. Price should know better than to demonize people and perpetuate myths that stigmatize people living with HIV."

GLAAD also weighed in, pointing out that Price's comment "further promotes the misinformation and stigma that creates barriers to testing and treatment for vulnerable communities, including transgender women of color and young gay and bi men of color."

By raising the idea of quarantine, Price triggered ugly flashbacks from a dark time when lots of political leaders wanted to round up gays. California had its own dreadful experience: back in 1986, when activists associated with Lyndon LaRouche placed Proposition 64 on the ballot. While supporters argued that it would have restored AIDS to the list of communicable diseases, the LGBT community saw it as an effort to force HIV-positive people out of their jobs and into quarantine. The acronym for the LaRouche backers said it all: PANIC, for Prevent AIDS Now Initiative Committee. Prop 64 was defeated by a margin of 71 percent to 29 percent. Never one to give up, LaRouche and his followers were back at it two years later. Proposition 69, as it was known, was also defeated.

Thirty-six years into the epidemic, AIDS stigma, unfortunately, still remains an issue that can prevent people from seeking care. Today people with suppressed viral loads have been shown to be less able - or unable - to transmit the virus using current medication. But people need to be able to confide in their medical providers and should be empowered by their decision to seek treatment, not threatened by politicians like Price, who wants the HIV/AIDS community to go back in the closet. Price needs to apologize for her remark, not sweep it under the rug by claiming she was "misunderstood." We heard her loud and clear, and so did PWAs.