Local, state officials mark World Aids Day

The state plans to change its system for servicing HIV patients beginning in January.


WALLA WALLA -- Today is World Aids Day and much has changed for those afflicted with HIV since a day of recognition was established in 1988.

Then, a young adult diagnosed with AIDS typically survived less than one year, according to the National Institute of Health.

Today, a similar person can expect to live to age 70 or beyond if diagnosed early, gets appropriate therapy and can tolerate the drugs and their side effects, the federal agency said. About 30 antiretroviral drugs and drug combinations are now available to suppress HIV infection.

Such pharmaceutical therapy has been a game changer for today's HIV sufferers, said David Kerns, HIV Prevention Services Manager with Washington state's Department of Health. "But AIDS is still here."

More than 10,000 people in this state live with the disease, according to the DOH. The rate of newly-diagnosed cases has remained steady since 2005, with a average of 570 new cases a year. Gay and bisexual men continue to be most affected by the HIV epidemic in Washington.

"We've done a good job of keeping it stable, but if we want to see that number drop, we need to try a new approach," Kerns said.

On Jan. 1, the Department of Health will centralize HIV service delivery, replacing a six-region system that's been in place since 1988. The change is a result of a bill passed in 2010.

The new plan saves the state money by cutting out regional coordinators while retaining care and access to medications for those living with and at most risk for the disease, officials said.

"HIV is devastating to people and families, and there's more work to do to prevent it," said state Secretary of Health, Mary Selecky. "We've got to make sure we keep providing services for people who are infected and at highest risk for becoming infected, which will help reduce the number of new HIV cases in Washington."

The new system allows county governments and community health organizations to bid to be providers of local HIV services, said Jill Dickey, director of Blue Mountain Heart to Heart.

That nonprofit agency has provided HIV and Hepatitis C support and education in Walla Walla and Columbia counties since 1991. Programs include prevention, Latino outreach and a syringe exchange program.

Heart to Heart's contract to do so is "very likely" to continue under the state's new service model, Dickey said.

But not without a loss of about $10,000 in funding, she predicted. "What it means overall, based on where people tested positive for HIV, that will decide which county gets the money for that person."

Funding prior to the start of 2011 has been more fluid and individual-based, Dickey explained, and now it will be a cut-and-dried formula. "They call it the parity model, but we may end up serving more people here than were diagnosed here."

That can happen, for example, when someone gets diagnosed in, say. Seattle, then decides to move back here for family support, she said. "They are following the epidemic, it's not based on true costs."

However, if one is comparing numbers, there are 37 people living with HIV in this area, while King County has 6,500, Kerns noted.

Clients are not going to see changes in services, Dickey emphasized. "We'll still be able to provide food, rental assistance, emergency utility assistance and (nutritional) supplements."

She and her staff will have to begin turning over rocks, however, to find ways to replace reduced state funding. That may result in salary and benefit hits, as well as furlough days, she said. "In this economy, it is a hard time for all nonprofits and local donations are down."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Vigil set for tonight

In marking World Aids Day, Blue Mountain Heart to Heart will sponsor a candlelight vigil, beginning at 5:30 p.m.. at Land Title Plaza on Main Street.

At 6:30 p.m., participants will walk to First Congregational Church, 73 S. Palouse St., for a presentation of international speakers and dancers.

For more information call 529-4744.


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