Social workers have always been critical to our nation’s response to HIV. In working to connect newly diagnosed people to HIV care and to help people to stay in care, social workers are now helping to make the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS) real. Social workers, like others, also have a role in educating individuals about emerging opportunities, including the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Just before the 32nd anniversary of the first report of cases of AIDS in the United States, over 500 social workers met in Chicago to attend the 25th Annual National Conference on Social Work and HIV/AIDS , which was convened by the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work. The theme was “Re-thinking HIV/AIDS: What’s Ahead for Social Work?”
The opening session of the conference set the stage for workshops and presentations exploring how social workers, advocates, health care workers, and providers can work collaboratively to find local and national solutions to many critical HIV/AIDS issues. The general sessions provided insights on how social workers can—and should—be prepared for the changing landscapes of both HIV and health care especially for the most vulnerable populations in our society. Many attendees were familiar with the frameworks woven into the conference program: the ACA, the NHAS, and the HIV treatment cascade.
The “Social Work Role for Healthcare Reform” session looked at integrating the ACA, NHAS, and the Ryan White Program. The session addressed how to prepare one’s organization for the ACA, recognizing that nearly 30% of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) are estimated to be uninsured. Although the Ryan White Program will continue after January 1, 2014, state responses to Medicaid expansion vary, so attendees wanted to know how the ACA will be implemented in the states where they practice.
In the “NHAS Policy into Action: Confronting Stigma to Improve Health Outcomes” session, participants explored the impact of HIV-related stigma and discrimination, identified barriers along the treatment cascade, and developed possible solutions that social workers could use to increase access to prevention, care, and treatment. (Read about the NHAS goals and stigma here.)
The “Aging Gracefully with HIV” session hit close to home for me, as a PLWHA who has gone from youth to middle age and worked in the field of HIV for nearly 20 years. It is estimated that by 2020 over 50% of persons living with HIV infection would be age 50 years or greater . This will include those persons previously diagnosed and those people over 50 who are newly testing positive. Social workers and health care providers need to be prepared for the “graying” of the epidemic and its specific challenges, including the possibility of increased chronic illnesses and treatment complications.
Thirty-plus years into the pandemic, we have come a long way, but I know that the work must continue. We have great tools with the NHAS and ACA, and we must recognize how critical social workers are to successfully implementing them. What affects one part of the population affects us all, and it will take collaborative efforts to see an AIDS-free generation within our lifetime.