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Julie Turkewitz, Housing Works & Advocate: Members of Congress Launch AIDS Caucus—But Will It Have Teeth?

Members of Congress Launch AIDS Caucus—But Will It Have Teeth? 
by Julie Turkewitz , September 15, 2011

photo: The caucus could play a role in passing several pieces of legislation authored by Rep. Barbara Lee, pictured at the podium.

Three U.S. representatives launched the country’s first-ever congressional HIV/AIDS caucus today. The move could be groundbreaking—if members commit to pushing forward and passing HIV/AIDS-related legislation.

The caucus’ launch in Washington, D.C., however, included no specific legislative objectives. And no caucus members mentioned the country’s most pressing HIV/AIDS issue—the growing number of people who cannot access HIV-related medication through the country’sAIDS Drug Assistance Programs.

“Just forming isn’t enough,” said Larry Bryant, Housing Works’ director for national organizing. “We’ve seen many press conferences where the words don’t travel beyond the beltway. It’s not going to matter what was said today if we don’t see real changes put in place.”

The bipartisan caucus is chaired by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Jim McDermott (D-WA). It has 59 members and was created to “examine methods by which the United States can maintain global leadership in the response to the epidemic in the U.S. and around the world,” according to a press document released by caucus co-chairs.

With federal and state governments looking to trim budgets, caucus members could face challenges passing legislation with funding attached—namely, bills that increase contributions to ADAPs or fighting AIDS abroad.

Caucus members, could, however, turn their attention to legislation that requires minimal funding. Lee is the author of two such bills. One, the Justice Act, would allow for condom distribution in federal prisons. Another, the Repeal HIV Discrimination Act, which Lee plans to introduce this month, could put an end to laws that impose cruel and unfair penalties on HIV-positive people.

“Since HIV criminalization continues to be a driving force of the stigma that has a significant negative impact on people with HIV and our broader culture of sexual health, I certainly do hope the Repeal Act will be a priority [for caucus members],” said Beirne Roose-Snyder, staff attorney at the Center for HIV Law and Policy.

Follow the Update blog on Twitter @housingworks.

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