State lawmakers joined with LGBT and HIV activists on Thursday to hold a public hearing exploring the impact of the HIV epidemic among black Georgians.

“Despite some progress made in our nation’s response to HIV/AIDS the disease still disproportionately impacts people of color, particularly black women, black men, and especially black lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and questioning communities,” said Krystal Redman, executive director of Spark Reproductive Justice NOW. The group helped organize the hearing at the State Capitol complex.

“Racism and stigma are major obstacles to the ongoing efforts to reduce the burden of HIV/AIDS in black communities,” Redman added.

The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus (GLBC) hosted the hearing and heard testimony from public health officials, health educators, advocates, and HIV-positive individuals about the prevalence of HIV among black residents in the state. Lawmakers are considering legislation they could propose to help in the battle against HIV.

Georgia ranks fifth in the nation for new cases of HIV and people here face a 1 in 51 chance of getting diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The rates for African Americans are even higher, particularly for black gay men.

“Sixty percent of people living with HIV are African-American,” Rep. Park Cannon said. “And so we need to continue to link people to not only care but prevention and treatment information."

Jennifer Barnes Balenciaga (second photo) – who self-identified as a health educator, woman of trans experience and someone living with undetectable HIV load – discussed how survival issues impact a person's ability to stick to their drug regime and suppress the virus.

“What that looks like, in my eyes and lived experience, is to obtain proper living quarters, progressive employment, transportation, healthcare – this does include mental healthcare – the ability and means to feed oneself, and a supportive community,” Balenciaga said.

She added that HIV-positive people have trouble finding adequate housing. Programs that place HIV-positive individuals in housing often have long waiting lists, limited funds, and sometimes, poorly maintained facilities. 

“Sometimes being able to have the bare necessities, like somewhere to lay your head, is one of the contributing factors [to antiretroviral therapy adherence] to those who are newly diagnosed,” Balenciaga said.

'Viral suppression has to be increased'

 

Daniel Driffin – co-founder of THRIVE SS, a support group for HIV positive men – told lawmakers that efforts to suppress the viral load of people with HIV will make a difference. Driffin is also co-chair of the Fulton County Task Force on HIV/AIDS, which last year launched an ambitious fight to eradicate HIV in the county.

“Viral suppression has to be increased for the State of Georgia. We know that once a person is virally suppressed, they will not transmit HIV. We have to eliminate structural barriers, particularly as it relates to starting and staying in care,” Driffin said.

Young, black men who have sex with men is a group with one of highest risks for contracting HIV; the CDC estimates that half of these men will receive an HIV-positive diagnosis in their lifetime. That compares to 1 in 11 for white men who have sex with men. Data for lesbian women, bisexual women, and trans and gender non-conforming people is less readily available. 

Quintin Robinson (top photo), an infectious diseases doctor at AbsoluteCARE, said people with HIV also face barriers to medication and side effects that can be a deterrent to adhering to their treatment.

“There are over 20 active HIV drugs on the market, but a lot of times what we are able to prescribe for a particular patient is limited by what the state, Ryan White [a federal program that funds HIV efforts] or Medicaid formulary says. So again, in some cases, it makes it a little bit difficult to get that HIV diagnosed person to an undetectable viral load,” Robinson said.

The formulary is a preferred drug list published by state health departments and government programs including Medicare and Medicaid. It establishes what drugs the program will cover and, due to factors like cost, some medications may not be available.

Cannon and Sen. Lester Jackson, the GLBC chair, said they would be interested in addressing the problem through legislation.

“The piece that, you know, we’re going to work on immediately is proposed funding and formulary changes that we can start to have some conversations around here," Cannon said. 

Cannon added that legislators will also be looking into addressing HIV criminalization laws, an area that several advocates referenced on Thursday.

Several other lawmakers attended the forum, including Reps. Keisha Waites, Karen Bennett, Erica Thomas, Doreen Carter, Gloria Frazier, "Able" Mable Thomas, and Sen. Vincent Fort.