HIV POLICY UPDATE

Finally, a Chance to Bring More HIV Health Care Providers into the Field

On February 7, Representative John Lewis (D-GA) introduced HR 5806, the “HIV Epidemic Loan-Repayment Program (HELP) Act” in the U.S. House of Representatives. In his letter inviting colleagues to sign onto the bill as co-sponsors, Lewis wrote that it will relieve the growing shortage of health care professionals trained in HIV by authorizing “up to $250,000 over five years in loan repayment to physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and dentists, who provide HIV treatment in health professional shortage areas or at Ryan White funded clinical sites.”

In 2008, the Academy started advocating for relief from the HIV workforce shortage, after conducting a survey showing that one third of our members were planning to retire within the next ten years and that, statistically, not enough new HIV-trained practitioners were entering the field to replace them and meet the growing need. The Academy was also the first to publish a federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) workforce study similarly concluding that “the Nation faces severe workforce capacity challenges to effectively treat people living with HIV. The demand for HIV and primary health care services, in particular, continue to increase.”

Twelve years later, the number of Americans with HIV is still increasing and the number of HIV-trained health care providers remains insufficient. The bill reflects the responsiveness Congressman Lewis has to his constituency, as well as to a national need. All four of the counties in Lewis’ district are among the 48 U.S. counties identified by the CDC as so hard hit by HIV that they were selected for the federal End the HIV Epidemic (EHE) initiative. Addressing the press, Lewis said that “policy makers must ensure that there are enough qualified, dedicated health professionals to care, support, and provide guidance for them.”

While EHE funding will bring much needed resources into the selected counties and states, it makes no specific provisions for recruiting health care providers with HIV experience and the ability to work in settings with poverty, substance use disorders, stigma and other challenges. At present, many prospective HIV providers are going into other more lucrative, fields of medicine in order to pay off the academic debt they have incurred.

We urge all of our Academy members and other providers to contact your Congressmembers and ask them to sign onto HR 5806, the “HIV Epidemic Loan-Repayment Program (HELP) Act.” You can do it by calling the Congressional Switchboard (202-224-3121) and ask them to connect you to your representative’s office. When connected, ask for the office’s health legislative assistant who will relay your message and should be able to answer any questions you have about the bill. Alternatively, you can go to your Congressmember’s website (all listed here), find the comment section, and make your comment. A phone call is preferable, if possible, because it gets more attention.

At long last, we have the chance to ensure that new HIV health care providers can get the training they need without incurring considerable debt. It is a chance to bring more trained providers into the EHE areas where they are most urgently needed. It is a real step forward in addressing the brutal hypocrisy identified by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – one of Rep. Lewis’ mentors – back in 1966; “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”