Advocates raised more than $200,000 as hundreds gathered this weekend for the AIDS Walk Portland, an annual effort to raise awareness about the changing healthcare needs of people living with HIV and AIDS. A team from the Multnomah County’s HIV Health Service Center raised more than $12,500 for the cause.
“I do it because I really believe in the cause,” said Center Manager Jodi Davich, who raised $5,000 from friends and family. “It‘s a time to remind people that HIV and AIDS is still with us. It’s also important for people to know that in Oregon there are lot of low-income people living with AIDS who need support.”
Davich works with about 40 staff who serve 1,450 patients living with HIV and AIDS. They provide clients with HIV and primary care medical services, Hepatitis C treatment, overall case management and mental health services. They also pair them with community health workers.
The Multnomah County Health Department also runs an STD Clinic, where a team of 34 serves residents living with HIV. Last year prevention specialists tested more than 5,000 people for the virus and expanded a program to distribute PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) antiretroviral medication to people at the highest risk of HIV infection.
The county also invests in community-based organizations including the Cascade Aids Project and supports new initiatives, such as Prism Health, Oregon’s first LGBTQ health clinic. For queer patients, it’s refreshing to see a doctor who doesn’t need to be educated.
“There’s still a lot of stigma when you go see your primary care doctor, those awkward conversations,” said Carlos Negrete, bilingual prevention navigator at Prism Health. “They don’t think about queer relationships. They don’t ask questions about the type of sex we’re having. I had those moments, especially when I wanted to start PrEP. They said, ‘You don’t need it. Just use condoms.’”
At Prism Health, Negrete makes sure clients have health insurance to cover the $1,500 monthly prescription for PrEP, and he helps clients advocate for access to the drug with providers who may not know how effective it is. Unlike many providers, whose patients are commonly cisgender heterosexuals, team members at Prism Health are comfortable with and knowledgeable about the changing needs of queer patients and people living with HIV and AIDS.
“We try to make people more comfortable,” said Deven Ferté, manager of healthcare operations for Prism. “Over the years AIDS has changed. It used to be an automatic death sentence. Now people are living a lot longer. Instead of short-term care, they need long-term care.”
The county’s services to people living with HIV and AIDS have expanded under the Affordable Care Act. But that coverage has been threatened as Congress debates whether to overhaul, or even discard, the healthcare law.
“Whoever you are, and whoever you love, health care is a human right, and no one should be denied the care they need,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said to the crowd gathered at the Fields Neighborhood Park in the Pearl District. “We have a long way to go as a nation to build a health care system that fulfills that promise for every one of us.
She encouraged people to “lean into hard conversations.”
“It’s the only way we will remove the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS,” she said. “No one should fight this alone.”
That’s why community and peer support programs continue to be vital, said David Eisen, executive director of the Quest Center for Integrative Health. People living with HIV and AIDS still experience stigma and isolation, but Quest sponsors support groups to help those often left out of the conversation. Each year they serve up to 100 women living with HIV and AIDS, offering a platform to share their experiences. The program began more than two decades ago with support from a group of Catholic nuns.
“It saved my life,” said Chanda McClure, who contracted HIV in 1991 from a blood transfusion. “I saw other women who weren’t dying. Other women out there who were surviving.”
She attended support meetings twice a week until the program lost funding in 2005. But McClure fought to keep the program alive. She organized mobile meetings out of her sleeper van. Together, with other women from the group, they met on the street near Peninsula Park. The children sat on the carpet in the back of the van and watched Sesame Street on a small TV set. The women gathered in the front of the van, and talked as they always had.
“We talked about what women talk about, our lives, bills,” McClure recalled. “At that time everyone was starting those [drug] cocktails. We talked about side effects.”
The next year Quest picked up the program, where it continues today. McClure said it’s still as important as it was when she was diagnosed.
“It’s different with the younger crowd. My kids talk to their friends about it,” she said. “But I still think older people, they’re stuck in their ways.”
- HIV Services Center: Multnomah County serves people, regardless of their ability to pay.
- Cascade AIDS Project: Offers healthcare and social services to people living with HIV.
- Prism Health: The state’s first primary care center that specializes in the needs of queer patients and people living with HIV.
- Quest Center for Integrative Health: Offers mental health and support services to people living with HIV.
- Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP): Taking this medication as prescribed can dramatically reduce the chances of a person contracting HIV if they have sex with a person who is HIV-positive.