Gov. Andrew Cuomo last June delivered a bold and seemingly audacious statement - that New York would become the first state in the nation to end its 35-year AIDS epidemic by the year 2020. Even without a cure, new treatment and prevention tools have finally placed this goal within our reach. And just last week, the governor demonstrated the seriousness of his commitment to a comprehensive solution by adding funding to his 30-day budget amendments for this year.
For those of us who have been in the fight since the beginning, the governor’s new commitment brings back memories of another Gov. Cuomo—Mario. In 1983, just six months into his first term in office—and when AIDS was still viewed as a “gay disease—Mario Cuomo signed into law a bill that created the state Department of Health’s AIDS Institute with $5.2 million in funding, along with the AIDS Advisory Council, making New York the first state in the country to launch a centralized response to the epidemic. In each year that followed, his administration added more resources, enacted stronger civil-rights protections and enhanced programs. By the end of the governor’s tenure, New York had created the most robust HIV/AIDS prevention and care infrastructure in the world.
So it is fitting that Andrew Cuomo is now leading the way with a bold vision to build on his father’s achievements by propelling New York to historic prominence in the fight to end the epidemic. The governor’s successful Medicaid redesign, along with expanded access to healthcare, new tools for HIV care, and renewed government and community commitment, now make it possible to reduce the number of New Yorkers living with HIV the first time in over three decades.
To achieve the governor’s goal, we must reduce the number of new HIV infections from approximately 3,000 this year to 750 by 2020. While this is no easy feat, New York has already reduced its annual rate of new HIV infections by 40 percent in the last decade, while the U.S. saw no decline at all.
To advance his plan, Cuomo appointed an Ending the Epidemic Task Force comprised of experts on HIV/AIDS from the public and private health sectors, and from community organizations. After months of intensive meetings, research and public input, the task force developed a blueprint of recommendations for meeting the governor’s mandate.
If New York is to end this epidemic, we must double the number of people with HIV who receive the continuous antiretroviral therapy necessary to remain healthy and unable to transmit the virus to others; housing and transportation services for low-income people with HIV must be expanded; laws to expand access to syringes and condoms must be reformed; Access to HIV-prevention tools like pre- and post-exposure chemoprophylaxis (PEP and PrEP) for those at high risk must be expanded; and minors must be able to consent to prevention and treatment.
These are just some of the aggressive yet necessary actions recommended by the governor’s task force. Most importantly, achieving this ambitious yet reachable goal will require a steadfast, ongoing commitment by both the governor and the Legislature to translate ideas into action: the blueprint must be embraced and the necessary resources must be provided for implementation.
Yes, our expectations are high, but so are the stakes. Since the governor’s announcement last June, other states, such as Washington and Minnesota, have made public commitments to end AIDS. To continue to lead this historic movement, New York must take the bold and decisive steps that can become the model for national and global action.
Ending AIDS is not just the right thing to do for the health of New Yorkers. It will also be a game-changer for the state budget. Full implementation of the task force’s recommendations is expected to generate $5.1 billion in total public healthcare savings around the state, including nearly $4 billion in savings from averted HIV infections. An additional $1.1 billion in savings can be generated by housing the 12,000 homeless and unstably-housed people living with HIV statewide.
New York has a unique opportunity to show the world that it is the visionary leader the global HIV movement has long awaited. The epicenter of the epidemic in the United States has always been New York, but the heart of AIDS activism and progress has also always been New York, and now it is time for New York to be the first to end AIDS altogether.
By: Perry Junjulas, Executive Director of the Albany & Schenectady Damien Centers and a person with AIDS; Charles King, President & CEO of Housing Works; Mark Harrington, Executive Director of Treatment Action Groups; and Kelsey Louis, CEO of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. All four were members of the Ending the Epidemic Task Force, with King serving as its community co-chair.