WASHINGTON -- About 200 angry demonstrators accused the government yesterday of discriminating against women with AIDS, saying the Social Security Administration's criteria for determining who is eligible for disability payments are preventing hundreds of women who test HIV positive from receiving federal benefits.
Eighteen people were arrested for obstructing traffic during the demonstration, outside the Department of Health and Human Services.
The protest, organized by ACT UP, a New York-based AIDS activist group, came one day after attorneys for women and others disabled by acquired immune deficiency syndrome filed a class action suit to force the health department, which oversees the Social Security Administriation, to makes its disability criteria less restrictive.
"You have to be half-dead to be declared disabled," said Phyllis Sharpe, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and a mother of six who tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, in 1988.
Like Ms. Sharpe, who suffers from joint pain, shortness of breath and diarrhea, many women who test HIV positive experience disabling illnesses but cannot collect disability benefits because the Social Security Administration has not defined those specific illnesses as AIDS-related, protest organizers said.
"Women get a whole range of other chronic disabling illnesses," said Lorrie Sprecher of ACT UP's Washington chapter, who noted that special gynecological problems -- including pelvic inflammatory disease, cervical cancer and vaginal infections -- frequently develop in women with the virus.
But the federal government's list of AIDS-related illnesses that qualify someone for disability payments is still based solely on the symptoms presented by the early victims of the disease -- gay white men.
The lack of women's access to AIDS disability benefits is especially problematic, activists said, since about 73 percent of women with the virus are minorities who are struggling to make ends meet. Another problem is that once women are diagnosed with HIV, they tend to die six times faster than men, one recent study found.
Women's death rate from AIDS quadrupled between 1985 and 1988, protesters said yesterday.
"Women are dying with no benefits and no services," said Lydia Awadallah of Life Force, a Brooklyn-based women's health education and outreach group. At least half of New York-area women with AIDS are being denied disability benefits and "are too sick to go out and work," she said.
Nationally, only 35 percent of women with an HIV diagnosis at the time of their deaths fit the current Social Security Administration criteria for AIDS disabilities, according to ACT UP leaders.
SSA Administrator Gwendolyn King, in a statement yesterday, appeared to acknowledge the need for more flexible criteria, saying the agency recognizes "our responsibility to continue to revise our guidelines."