Grappling with an Epidemic: The Power of Faith and Community
When I look at the Torah portion for this week I see a story that holds deep reminders for us today. It is the story of Jacob and how he wrestled with something otherworldly in his journey. Perhaps it is an angel, perhaps it is a powerful “man,” perhaps allegorically it is Jacob’s own past. Despite injury, uncertainty and potentially being outmatched, he is resolved to obtain God’s blessing. It is a story of undaunted faith. This reading is particularly poignant as we recognize World AIDS day this Saturday, December 1st.
There are approximately 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in this country alone. Daily, they exhibit a Jacob-like courage and determination. HIV remains an enormous problem for far too many communities. Because of lack of insurance and access to health care, and other obstacles including language barriers, lack of education and stigma, obtaining health care — especially sexual and reproductive health care services — remains a challenge for far too many.
I am of the age before modern medical advancements allowed those infected with HIV to live long, fruitful lives. Like many of my generation, I have been touched by the shadowy specter of HIV/AIDS.
This is why we’re so fortunate that the Affordable Care Act gives us an opportunity to work together to change the course of the epidemic. With new investments in sex education and the evolution of health technology as a means to educate and communicate with more people than ever before, we have new tools to address the HIV epidemic. Under the Affordable Care Act, millions more people will be eligible for health insurance, including many people with HIV. Currently, insurers will be required to fully cover annual counseling and screening for HIV infection for all sexually active women, as well as HIV screening for adolescents and adults who are at higher risk for contracting HIV. In November, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommended that all Americans aged 15-65 receive routine HIV testing, not just those most at risk. If finalized, this would mean insurers would have to cover HIV screenings without co-pay.
Health care providers like Planned Parenthood health centers will play a large role in translating these new requirements into expanded access to health care for people across the country. Planned Parenthood is among the nation’s leading providers of HIV screening. In 2011, Planned Parenthood health centers conducted 680,000 HIV tests, a 16 percent increase from 2010. Moreover, one in three women who receives an HIV test is tested at a women’s health center, like Planned Parenthood.
Reproductive health care providers like Planned Parenthood are exceptionally well-placed to provide HIV screenings and referrals to HIV treatment because they are often the only provider of care for women. Among women surveyed at women’s health centers nationwide, 41 percent reported that these health centers were their only source of health care in the past year.
As the constituency outreach manager at Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), I work with people of faith and clergy across the country as well as our Clergy Advisory Board, a group of about 20 clergy from a variety of denominations around the nation, who help to articulate the moral and ethical foundations of women’s health care decisions.
Reform Jews have a long history of action around HIV/AIDS — the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Union for Reform Judaism, and Women of Reform Judaism all provide resolutions. They recognize the importance of “advocat[ing] and work[ing] with like-minded coalitions to address the international AIDS crisis.”
Like Planned Parenthood, clergy are bedrocks of caring in their communities and play a vital role in creating a robust and healthy society in which people are cared for.
As both a member of Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Maryland, and a staff member at PPFA, I am heartened that on World AIDS Day this Shabbat, rabbis, clergy, and people of faith all over have an opportunity to celebrate the progress we have made in the fight against AIDS and to resolve with their congregations to renew their efforts. For instance, volunteers from Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region, partnering with local black churches, as well as other coalition partners are canvassing African-American neighborhoods with educational flyers containing information about HIV/AIDS. In other places people will hold candlelight vigils and in still others people will write letters to the editor. As we come together like that, combined we make a difference.
Together we are fighting for the healthiest generation ever. On World AIDS Day and every day, there is much to be done. Let your tzedakah be to raise awareness. Talk to your friends and family about this global problem, ensure your loved ones get the information and care they need and deserve, and let your legislators know that you support investments in family planning.
Glenn Northern is the constituency outreach manager at Planned Parenthood Federation of America where part of his work is to mobilize progressive faith voices in support of reproductive health. He has also been known to make a decent matzoh brie from time to time.