"This is important because HIV/AIDS is still an epidemic."
In this Dec. 1, 2021, file photo, the White House in Washington is decorated to commemorate World AIDS Day. Credit: Susan Walsh / AP

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Deborah Shields of Saco is a board member of the Frannie Peabody Center. She served as a staff attorney at Harvard’s AIDS Law Clinic before moving to Maine to serve as director of the AIDS Project, the AIDS Lodging House. She also worked as a policy analyst in the Maine CDC’s HIV/AIDS department.

As the state’s largest and leading nonprofit providing HIV/AIDS services, Frannie Peabody Center supports legislation in the Maine Legislature that will improve access to HIV prevention drugs and testing.

For more than three decades, I’ve worked with individuals impacted by HIV/AIDS, including at Portland’s AIDS Project, AIDS Lodging House and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. I’ve been devoted to raising awareness about HIV/AIDS and believe we need to support legislation being considered to broaden HIV testing in the state.

The Legislature is considering a bill entitled, An Act to Advance the National HIV/AIDS Strategy in Maine by Broadening HIV Testing (LD 1736), on Monday. The legislation will increase access to HIV prevention drugs and testing through expanded health care coverage and benefit offerings. This bill also will protect Maine’s youth by allowing them to access HIV testing and treatment as a routine part of their medical care.

If the legislation passes, HIV testing will be broadened by: offering HIV testing in emergency and urgent care settings; including HIV testing as part of a standard set of medical tests being provided for comprehensive sexually transmitted infection screenings; and ensuring coverage for annual testing for everyone over age 13 through their health insurance plan.

This is important because HIV/AIDS is still an epidemic. The virus doesn’t discriminate based on gender, race, income level, sexual orientation, age or gender identity — it affects all populations. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that more than 1.2 million people are living with HIV in the U.S. and there are more than 35,000 new infections each year.

More than 40 years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it’s important to remember that there’s still no cure for the virus. HIV/AIDS is not fading away. In many respects, the awareness, compassion and funding for those living with this disease have fallen to the wayside.

Annually, the Frannie Peabody Center serves more than 400 Mainers living with HIV/AIDS throughout the state, from York to Fort Kent, and we perform more than 500 HIV tests. More than 30 percent of individuals seeking our community-based testing services have never been tested for HIV. We know these low-barrier testing services are a key part of the effort to increase HIV testing access, but we must do more, as a state, to ensure everyone is aware of their status and how to protect themselves.

LD 1736 will accomplish this by incorporating HIV testing into routine patient care and reaching more people in urgent care settings that may not be aware of their risk or have access to primary care.

On Monday, the Joint Committee on Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services in Augusta will be considering LD 1736. We urge you to contact your local representatives to express support for the expansion of HIV prevention drugs and testing.

HIV testing is important for both treatment and prevention efforts. This legislation is a positive step toward reducing the transmission rates in Maine and protecting our youth. We urge you to contact your local state officials in support of this legislation.