Clinton, Sanders meetings with HIV/AIDS Activists Go in Different Directions

Michael Rajner meet with presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in California.

Both meetings between HIV/AIDS activists and Secretary Hillary Clinton (May 12 in Brooklyn) and Senator Bernie Sanders (May 25 in San Bernardino) seemed to end the same way – with promises by both to increase the focus and funding for HIV/AIDS.

The aftermath of each meeting, however, couldn’t have been further apart.

While Clinton’s meeting didn’t make much news beyond the reporting on its occurrence, Sanders’ meeting has made headlines because of accusations by activists that his campaign mischaracterized what happened.

“Your campaign’s release title and the bulk of its content mislead readers and the press to believe that our May 25 meeting was primarily focused on your endorsement of a California ballot initiative on HIV drug pricing. By extension, it also implies that our national HIV/AIDS coalition also fully endorses this initiative. Both these characterizations are inaccurate,” wrote the activists in an open letter on May 27.

According to the California Attorney General, the California "Drug Price Relief Act" would, if approved by voters in November, “enable the state to pay the same prices for prescription drugs as the prices paid by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.”

“Feeling used and abused by the Sanders campaign right now. They just issued a press release making it sound like our meeting was about his endorsement of AHF's drug pricing ballot initiative in CA,” wrote long time HIV activist Peter Staley on Facebook.

In response to Staley, Warren Gunnels, senior policy advisor for the Sanders campaign, used Twitter to accuse Staley of making “a fortune from big drug companies.” Staley later told media outlets that he doesn’t receive any funding from pharmaceutical companies. Gunnels later deleted the offending tweet.

The headline of Sanders’ press release reads “Sanders Backs California Ballot Initiative to Rein in Drug Prices at Meeting with HIV/AIDS Advocates.” The beginning of the release reads, “U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday met with national HIV/AIDS advocates to discuss the epidemic and his support for a California ballot initiative to lower prices for taxpayer-supported AIDS treatments.”

The release goes on to highlight Sanders’ Medicare-for-all universal health care plan, which would benefit the 1.2 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS, and a pledge to set the goal of ending the epidemic in the U.S. by 2025. It also includes plans to incentivize drug makers to develop new treatments, the expansion of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, and stronger civil rights protections for those with HIV/AIDS.

During the meeting, according to notes provided by the activists, activist and Wilton Manors resident Michael Rajner said he’d like Sanders to speak more about the disease outside the context of corporations. “We’d like to see more under the health component. In the past, there has been insufficient attention paid to HIV in the platform.”

When Sanders asked, “Why was their platform insufficient last time?” Rajner responded, “They try to put as little as possible, because it won’t be read again. We need to see actual language in the platform and not just hear that it was talked about. It’s been since 2000 since we had someone speak at the DNC. We need to have that returned.”

Thomas Davis, health education specialist at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, echoed Rajner. “It’s important that we don’t silo AIDS as an LGBT issue. There are many people outside of that particular group that won’t get the importance of the AIDS epidemic unless you target the message. I do speaking tours to young folks. A lot of times, I’m the first person living with HIV that these people have met. When they understand that it’s an issue that can affect anyone, they are more likely to pay attention and get educated, and when they are prepared, they’re less afraid when they encounter the issue later in life.”


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