On October 18, 2014 the DC Commission for Women hosted an Inaugural Policy Conference. The Women’s Collective was in attendance, attending the opening and panel sessions, as well as providing free HIV testing at the event. Specifically, we attended the DC Healthy Women panel, which gave an overview of key issues affecting the health of DC women. Of particular issue to our clients, the panel discussed the effects of HIV in the city, as well as access to reproductive health care.
The DC Health Department spoke about HIV. They gave the sobering reminder that nearly 1 in 5 new cases of HIV in DC occur among African American heterosexual women. However, there is also encouraging news about the HIV epidemic in DC. Overall, the number of new infections in DC is decreasing. Additionally, for those diagnosed with HIV, access to health care is improving. Currently, 86% of people are linked to care within 3 months of an HIV diagnosis, compared to 50% in 2005
However, the panel discussed some actions we can take or continue to support, in order to improve health outcomes and access to care for people living with HIV. These include free access to condoms and clean needles to reduce the risk of HIV transmission; promoting HIV as a routine part of health care, so that all people will know their HIV status; and changing discussions around sex and sexuality, so that they are positive and affirming.
In addition to these actions discussed by the panel, The Women’s Collective is working to support health care access among women living with HIV. Towards this end, we identified access to high quality health care, that is both culturally competent and trauma informed, as one of our policy priorities. Health care access is crucial for women living with HIV, because there are gender-based disparities in HIV outcomes, particularly related to viral load suppression. For instance, a smaller proportion of women in care achieve viral load suppression, when compared to men in care. To address these disparities, and enable women living with HIV to be linked to care, retained in care, and achieve viral load suppression, we believe that support services, such as those provided by The Women’s Collective and made possible through Ryan White funding, can be effective. As such, we believe that in the changing health care landscape, Ryan White funding for support services needs to continue.
Reproductive health care was also discussed at the Healthy DC Women panel. Shockingly, in DC, 70% of pregnancies are unintended. We recognize that this statistic points toward the need for comprehensive sexual education, access to contraception, and access to abortion. However women in DC face particular restrictions: Congress has banned DC from using its own funds to pay for medically necessary abortions for Medicaid recipients. Policies such as this severely restrict a low-income woman’s ability to access reproductive health care, which could have long-lasting effects on her health and ability to meet her basic needs.
While the health forum, in particular, pointed to areas where policy change is very much needed, we want to applaud the focus on women’s issues by the DC government. Recognition of and meaningful discussion about the specific issues women in Washington, DC face is a crucial first step. We hope that this conference and the continued work of the DC Commission for Women can support the creation and enactment of policies to protect the rights and improve the well-being of women in Washington, DC.