Obama HIV/AIDS Plan Aims to Reduce Infections by 25 Percent

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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration unveiled a new national HIV and AIDS strategy Tuesday that officials said reflects a nation at a turning point in its fight against the epidemic.

While medical breakthroughs have greatly improved quality of life for the 1.1 million Americans living with HIV, the U.S. has struggled to lower the rate of new infections. The new strategy sets a goal of reducing new infections by 25 percent over the next five years.

About 56,000 people in the U.S. become infected each year, a rate that has held steady for about a decade.

"We've been keeping pace when we should be gaining ground," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during a White House event announcing the strategy.

At a reception honoring the work of the HIV and AIDS community Tuesday evening, President Obama said the United States is committed to stopping the scourge of HIV/AIDS and helping those afflicted lead a better life.

"The question is not whether we know what to do but whether we will do it," Obama said.

Obama spoke in an East Room ceremony in which he praised those who have worked to stop HIV/AIDS.

The president said over the last three decades, the United States has addressed a disease it was once too slow to confront.

The plan also calls for a renewed focus on increasing access to care, with the goal of getting treatment for 85 percent of patients within three months of their diagnosis; concentrating HIV prevention efforts at the highest-risk populations, which include gay and bisexual men as well as black Americans; and increasing education about the virus, even in communities with low rates of infection.

"The progress we've made in the past 30 years has come with an unintended side affect -- Americans have become less fearful of HIV and AIDS," Sebelius said. "We can't afford that kind of complacency."

The report is the result of more than a year of discussions between the administration, state and local officials, advocacy groups and the private sector. The administration is allocating $30 million from the massive health care overhaul Congress passed earlier this year toward implementation of the strategy.

Some AIDS activists have criticized the plan for not setting more ambitous goals, and for not funding the benchmarks it does lay out.

"The president's plan is so flawed that it might actually represent a step backwards in combating HIV and AIDS in the United States," said Charles King, president of Housing Works, a community-based AIDS organization.

The strategy aims to copy some of the steps credited with spurring the success of a Bush-era policy to fight AIDS in hard-hit developing countries. That includes setting specific targets and mandating coordination among different government agencies to guard against missteps and wasted, duplicated efforts.

"We've never had that kind of coordinated, accountable effort to address AIDS in America, and that's what we need," said Chris Collins of the Foundation for AIDS Research, one of the groups that met with administration officials.

There is a new HIV infection every 9 1/2 minutes in the U.S. But about one of every five people living with HIV doesn't know it.

Access to care plays a role in prevention, too, because the more virus in someone's bloodstream, the easier it is for that person to spread infection through such things as unprotected sex.

In one step toward reducing disparities in access to care, the Obama administration on Friday reallocated $25 million to states that have waiting lists for their AIDS Drug Assistance Programs, which provide treatment help for the uninsured and underinsured.

The National Alliance of State & Territorial AIDS Directors reported that more than 2,200 people in 12 states were on waiting lists for ADAP help as of last week.