By Sanjay Kishore
This past week I traveled to DC with 10 other undergrads passionate about health policy. During my visit I had the intriguing experience of visiting Housing Works, a prominent homelessness and HIV/AIDS advocacy organization famous for its history of activism, social justice, and civil disobedience. While we thought we were going on a simple tour, I soon realized that I would walk away with much more perspective on the state of health policy than when I entered.
As it turns out, the Washington Post had published an article the previous night quoting a local councilwoman who said she was considering reallocating HIV/AIDS funding to other obesity-related medical conditions affecting her district – none other than primarily diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. Since she was the swing vote for passage of the budget, it was likely her demands would be included in the final bill. As I stood in the office of Housing Works, I saw the HIV/AIDS lobby begin to mobilize. Conference calls were made, frustrations exchanged, talking points drafted, and responses strategized. As student aides for the day, we too played a part. Our role? Drafting a letter to the councilwoman forcefully explaining that HIV/AIDS funding could not be cut by a single penny. And write we did, composing a message to be used as a call to action that would surely fill the legislator’s inbox.
To Housing Work’s credit, their rationale was this: instead of distributing money to different diseases (take from HIV, give to diabetes, etc.), why not create a better health system that addresses all of these health problems holistically? This seems completely rational - yet, there was a caveat. To accomplish health system strengthening, they wanted more overall funds devoted to health without reallocating money away from HIV/AIDS.
This example speaks to the challenges prospective health care faces as it encourages policymakers to combat chronic disease. Perhaps these funds would have helped eliminate “food deserts,” improve access to community exercise facilities, and allow free physicals in disadvantaged neighborhoods. But it would have been at the expense of helping individuals with other health needs. The reality is clear: in the midst of a $3 trillion deficit, governmental resources for health are limited. And paying more for one disease (in this case obesity) means paying less attention to another (HIV/AIDS)
Is this a false competition? Perhaps. Though we all stand for health as a human right, over-specialization may be hindering our collective progress. Can students play a role in facilitating collaboration and uniting narrow interest groups? You bet. Creating a stronger health system is not just a talking point – it’s a solution that will require compromise and force us to seek common ground. One thing is clear: it’s going to be a lot harder to de-politicize a movement to alleviate chronic disease than perhaps anyone of us youth ever thought.