BATON ROUGE – A House committee voted Wednesday to reconstitute a commission that is trying to slow the spread of HIV, which affects nearly 22,000 Louisiana residents.
Overall, Louisiana had the second highest rate in the nation of AIDS cases per 100,000 people, after the District of Columbia, and the third highest rate of HIV infections, after the District of Columbia and Georgia.
More than 1,100 individuals were diagnosed with new cases of HIV in 2016, with more than half of them were in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas.
“The latest data does reflect some very terrible statistics,” said Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, who sponsored the bill.
The bill, approved by the House Health and Welfare Committee, would change the name of the commission to Louisiana Commission on HIV/AIDS Education, Prevention and Treatment. It also would streamline its membership and extend it to 2022. The bill now goes to the full House.
Reports from the federal Centers for Disease Control indicate that just over half of the Louisiana residents with HIV have AIDS.
The Baton Rouge area ranked first in the country in the rate of HIV cases and the New Orleans area ranked four, after Jackson, Mississippi and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, according to a CDC report.
But, Smith said, “There are persons living with HIV in every parish in Louisiana.”
HIV diagnosis for African Americans in Louisiana was more than six times higher than among whites, although they constitute only 32 percent of the state’s population. In 2016, 73 percent of new HIV diagnoses and 74 percent of newly-diagnosed AIDS cases were African Americans, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
“There is a major reason why we need to recreate this commission,” she said.
Women accounted for one out of four HIV diagnoses.
The commission would provide recommendations to the state Health Department and the Legislature on “what we need to be doing to try to eliminate and diminish the number of cases,” Smith added.
Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches, thanked Smith for introducing the bill. “I don’t understand why the room is not full of cameras,” he said. “This is an epidemic.” HIV/AIDS “destroys families, homes, communities.”
Rep. Bernard LeBas, D-Ville Platte, said there are “a lot good new drugs to treat these diseases, but the price tag on them is unbelievable.”
“We’re losing good citizens of this state,” he lamented. “Anything we can do, we should do it.”
Smith said that “education, education, education” is crucial.
In a separate vote on Wednesday, the House Health and Welfare Committee also reported favorably a bill by Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, that would extend the termination date of the Medicaid fraud prevention task force.
“We have more work to do there,” Bacala said.
Responding to a question by Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, Bacala agreed that Medicaid “is working in a positive manner,” but argued that there are still “things we need to tweak.”
By Tryfon Boukouvidis, LSU Manship School News Service