Not an exclusive club

November 02, 2006

At the onset of the AIDS epidemic in this country, New York and San Francisco were the epicenters of the mysterious ailment killing homosexuals. As the disease progressed, intravenous drug abusers were its next victims, deepening the crisis and overcoming cities such as Baltimore, Chicago and Boston.

Today, 25 years later, the new outbreaks of HIV are occurring in Southern cities and the capitals of rural America. Yet a federal AIDS treatment funding bill that would increase aid to cities with rising incidences of the disease is stalled in the U.S. Senate. That fight, if left unresolved, would scuttle an extension on new reporting requirements that is linked to millions in AIDS dollars for the Baltimore metropolitan area. The outlay of federal AIDS dollars should reflect the changing course of this disease; failing to acknowledge that reality may compromise lives.

At issue here is the reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act, the chief source of AIDS treatment funding to states. The House passed a version of the legislation in September, but Democratic senators from New York, Florida, California and Illinois are blocking the Senate bill, claiming it compensates some needy areas at the expense of others where AIDS remains entrenched.

Underlying this debate is the fact that the Ryan White treatment funding has been frozen since 2003, and new medications are allowing AIDS patients to live longer. If Congress doesn't resolve this complex issue before year's end, there will be consequences beyond the big states.

The delay is playing havoc with AIDS funding for 10 states that have yet to convert to a new system of identifying HIV-infected patients; Maryland is among the group that is relying on Congress to authorize a transition period during which states can begin reporting their patients by name. If the Ryan White CARE Act isn't approved - and the extension of the grace period included in it - about $10 million to $15 million in AIDS funding for the Baltimore area would be lost. That could seriously impair the care of thousands of AIDS patients in Maryland.

Maryland's senators should be looking for a way to press their colleagues to at least enact into law the reporting grace period. Barring that, the next governor should be prepared to cover some of the shortfall until a compromise over funding is reached. The AIDS virus may have debuted on the east and west coasts, but it is not exclusive to any state, red or blue.

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