Howard Jacobs has been living with AIDS for over 14 years, relying on state assistance when he lost access to private health insurance. When he began using protease inhibitors, he became stronger. He went back to work, got private insurance, and stopped depending on the state of California for health care. Unfortunately, Howard's lifesaving medicines had side effects that caused liver disease and diabetes, and he had to leave the workforce. COBRA now covers his prescription drugs, but what will happen next year when he loses this benefit?
He could die a victim of Governor Schwarzenegger's obscene attempt to balance the state budget on the backs of poor people. California is the most populous state in the union, and it's a trendsetter. California has given us everything from the Beach Boys to Ronald Reagan. Now the Terminator has enacted policies that are going to terminate the lives of people with HIV. If we don't stop him in California, his ideas could spread across the country.
President Bush wants to put a man on Mars. I'm a child of the '60s. I remember John F. Kennedy's speech about putting a man on the moon. You couldn't pry me away from the television when Neil Armstrong took that 'one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.' Any talk about space exploration takes me back there. It excites my imagination. I just have one question: How can we afford to put a man on Mars when we can't afford basic health care for our citizens?
What's happening in California is both frightening and outrageous. The governor has proposed caps on AIDS Drug Assistance Programs and cuts to Medi-Cal. Many people rely on Medi-Cal for access to care. According to Health Access California, under the governor's plan hundreds of thousands of children and others will be denied basic care and millions of Californians will have to pay more to get basic health services.
Howard has lived with AIDS for a long time. He is an inspiration to others. His story has been one of hope. He has personified the fact that people can live with AIDS and can be vital contributors to our society. But if Howard cannot get access to medications, his health outcome is bleak. He cannot afford to pay for the four antiretrovirals he takes, or the medications that help his liver function, or the insulin he needs to keep his blood sugar under control. Governor Schwarzenegger wants to force him to choose between food, housing, and lifesaving medications.
Nancy Ramos, a 48-year-old single mother of two living with AIDS, has already made that choice, should it come to that. Nancy has been infected with HIV for nearly 12 years. She and her two children live in a two-bedroom apartment. Her primary sources of income are two government programs. In June she began working 15 to 20 hours a week at a minimum-wage job to supplement that income. Her medication regimen costs about $1,450 a month. Other household expenses (rent, utilities, food) are about $1,500 a month.
If it comes to choosing between paying for her AIDS meds or their monthly living expenses, Nancy says without hesitation, 'I would stop taking my life-sustaining AIDS medication to keep my family under one roof and fed properly.' Sadly, that choice would more than likely be a mere stopgap measure. Should Nancy stop taking her meds and die, what would happen to her children then?
If we can send a person to Mars, as President Bush now wants to do, we ought to be able to keep people on Earth alive. I think exploring space is great. I want to go to places where no one has ever gone before. How about starting with a health care delivery plan that works for Howard and Nancy? Better yet, how about a national health care system that works for all of us? Now that would be one giant leap for mankind.
Wilson is the director of the Los Angeles'based Black AIDS Institute.