Vice presidential candidates Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat John Edwards missed a key opportunity to talk about U.S. domestic AIDS policies during the vice presidential debate Tuesday night, responding to a question about the impact of AIDS on African-American women by instead talking about the global AIDS crisis. Debate moderator Gwen Ifill, a PBS news correspondent, asked Vice President Cheney to comment on the government's role in fighting the domestic AIDS epidemic, noting that "black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their [white] counterparts." She asked the candidates to specifically talk about AIDS at home, not in "China or Africa."
Cheney responded by admitting he was unaware that HIV disproportionately affects African-American women, called AIDS in America and abroad a "great tragedy," and then proceeded to talk about the Administration's five-year, $15 billion President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief that focuses on AIDS efforts in 12 developing countries.
In his rebuttal Edwards also avoided talking about domestic AIDS issues, focusing on the impact of the disease in Africa and Russia, and noting that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry would double PEPFAR spending to $30 billion over five years. Edwards then turned the issue to the broader health care problem in the United States, saying that children and adults don't have adequate access to preventive care services.
AIDS groups and activists tell Advocate.com they are disappointed the candidates avoided talking about domestic AIDS issues, particularly the Bush administration's flat-funding of Ryan White spending, the financial crisis faced by the nation's AIDS Drug Assistance Programs, and President Bush's push for abstinence-only sex and HIV prevention education programs.
"It was extremely disappointing," Lee Klosinski, director of programs at AIDS Project Los Angeles, told Advocate.com. "It gives us pause to think such high-placed representatives on the two tickets were so ill-equipped to articulate a coherent response to the question about domestic AIDS, and in particular to address the criminal disparities that African-Americans in general--and African-American women in particular--face regarding HIV infection and, we would add, care and treatment." Klosinski says he and his organization had hoped Edwards would challenge the efficacy of abstinence-only HIV prevention programs favored by the Bush administration, and that both candidates would talk about their stands on reauthorizing the federal Ryan White Act in 2005, the lack of federal funding for HIV microbicide research, and the growing numbers of HIV-positive people on waiting lists for access to ADAP services. "The bottom line is that these guys were totally unequipped to address the domestic AIDS agenda, and it gives us pause about the next four years," Klosinski says.
Ana Oliveira, executive director of New York's Gay Men's Health Crisis, told Advocate.com, "It is disappointing that the managing editor of Washington Week on PBS knows more about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in this country than our current vice president, Dick Cheney, and his challenger, Sen. John Edwards. Hopefully, the question posed will lead to some real answers and real solutions to address this devastating health crisis, which affects everyone, regardless of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation."
The Human Rights Campaign in a press statement called Cheney's ignorance of the impact of HIV on African-American women "inexcusable" and notes that Cheney was one of just 13 House members to vote against the precursor to the Ryan White Act in 1988--the AIDS Federal Policy Act. "The Administration has an abysmal record on the domestic epidemic, cutting funds for key prevention programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and failing to adequately fund health care coverage for people with HIV," said HRC executive director Cheryl Jacques. "Despite this failure to fund, the Administration has found resources to increase funding for abstinence-until-marriage programs by millions upon millions of dollars--programs that are unproven, untested, and insufficient."
Patricia Bass, chairwoman of the Communities Advocating for Emergency AIDS Relief Coalition, said in a press statement that Cheney's response during the debate "honestly reflected the ignorance that exists at the federal level of government regarding the true impact of HIV/AIDS in America today. It is impossible to effectively respond to a crisis when you don't know it exists. Since President Bush and Vice President Cheney took office, the number of people living with AIDS in the United States has increased by almost 100,000 cases, and 40,000 people have continued to become infected with HIV every year. At the same time, the Administration and Congress have flat-funded the Ryan White CARE Act for primary care and support services, and waited for dangerous waiting lists to form for pharmaceuticals provided through the AIDS Drug Assistance Program before attempting to fix that problem." She also said Edwards "missed a clear opportunity to speak out on the need for greater support of the [Ryan White] CARE Act and other programs in place now to care for people with HIV/AIDS."
HRC's Jacques says that although Edwards missed an opportunity to talk about domestic AIDS issues, he and running mate Kerry have clear positions on improving the domestic AIDS battle. "Unlike the Bush administration, Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards are focused on solving our HIV/AIDS crisis," she said in the press statement. "Both cosponsor the Early Treatment for HIV Act and support full funding for science-based HIV prevention programs and the Ryan White CARE Act. The Kerry-Edwards commitment is strong and clear."