An End to HIV by 2030?

In his recent State of the Union speech, President Trump made an ambitious pledge in the area of public health: to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within ten years. The actual plan, released that week by the Department of Health and Human Services, aims to end new HIV infections by 2030. HHS proposes to do this by targeting “geographic hotspots”: forty-eight counties, plus Washington, DC and San Juan, Puerto Rico that account for more than 50 percent of new HIV diagnoses, as well as seven states with high rates of infection in rural areas. The plan calls for diagnosing the disease quickly, starting treatment as soon after as possible afterward, and increasing the use of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a medication for people at high risk for HIV.


Researchers and HIV/AIDS advocates call the initiative aggressive but achievable, as all of its medical components—diagnostics, anti-retroviral therapies, PrEP—have been available for some time. However, many remain skeptical of the Trump administration’s actual level of commitment to ending HIV, given its ongoing assault on LGBTQ communities, immigrants, and people of color, populations with high rates of new infections. Furthermore, the administration has continually attacked and undermined the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, making health insurance both more difficult to obtain and more expensive to use. Premiums continue to rise, and seven states have implemented work requirements that have had the effect of kicking people off Medicaid, with applications pending in eight more.

As both a social and a medical endeavor, public health must engage communities, where local norms and cultural attitudes can affect disease transmission. Take for example the recent measles outbreak in Clark County, Washington, a state that allows exemptions to mandatory vaccinations for medical, religious, and philosophical reasons. As NPR has reported, some schools have vaccination rates under 40 percent, rather than the 90 percent or so required for a community to be protected. Parents who are responding to inaccuracies and rumors on social media and from other parents forego vaccinations for their children, placing entire communities at risk. Combating such fears requires not only a tightening of applicable laws, but also a campaign to address vaccine misinformation in locations where it can itself spread like a virus.

If the Trump administration is truly committed to eradicating HIV, then it must combine social with medical approaches. It’s not enough simply to diagnose more people and subsidize new PrEP prescriptions. Resources must also go toward affordable housing, nutrition assistance, and counseling to ensure that patients are emotionally supported and are adhering to regimes of treatment. Stigma and discrimination remain obstacles to meaningful care in affected populations; any far-reaching plan must tackle social attitudes among those affected, including families and healthcare providers. We may have in hand the medical tools to end new transmissions, but success will not rest on these components alone. The Trump administration must understand this if it genuinely wants to succeed in its goal.

Addiction News: E-Cigarettes vs. Nicotine Patches; OxyContin and Recovery

Here are two recent noteworthy items in addiction news.

In Smoking Cessation, E-Cigarettes Trade One Form of Nicotine Addiction for Another

A study by British researchers published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine found that e-cigarettes were nearly twice as effective as traditional nicotine-replacement methods at helping smokers to quit. After one year, 18 percent of e-cigarette users were still not smoking, compared with about 10 percent of those who used nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, and inhalers. Without any kind of aid, the success rate for smoking cessation is around 3 percent.


The downside of using e-cigarettes to quit is that people often ended up addicted to them. Vaping is less harmful than lighting up a conventional cigarette, which contains numerous toxins including tar, formaldehyde, arsenic, and carbon monoxide. In terms of harm reduction, e-cigarettes are an improvement over regular cigarettes. But nicotine itself is a highly addictive chemical that can be lethal in concentrated doses; for centuries, it has been used as an insecticide. Furthermore, vaping products often contain flavoring agents to make them taste of mint or cinnamon or different kinds of fruit, and no long-term studies have been done on their safety.

When e-cigarettes were first introduced in the US a decade or so ago, I wondered if they would re-normalize the act of smoking—or inhaling a nicotine-laden vapor—in a culture where it had become increasingly disparaged. E-cigarettes are popular among young people and have been specifically marketed to them by manufacturers such as Juul, which until an FDA crackdown last fall, sold vaping pods in flavors of mango, cucumber, fruit, and creme at gas stations and convenience stores. Even if e-cigarettes may be useful in weaning some adults off tobacco, they’re not being used that way by young people. Instead, they’re introducing a new generation to nicotine addiction through an act that mimics conventional smoking, popularizing anew a behavior that public health advocates worked for decades to stigmatize.

OxyContin Maker Sought to Enter Addiction Recovery Business

In Massachusetts, attorney general Maura Healey has filed a lawsuit accusing Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, of creating and perpetuating the opioid crisis. The suit claims that the company, and the Sackler family which controls it, aggressively marketed the medication while knowing that it was addictive, promoted higher doses to increase profits, and hired the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to boost its image in the fact of negative publicity. The allegations are disturbing and have been covered previously; Patrick Radden Keefe’s article in the New Yorker, in particular, is a comprehensive look at the Sackler family and how it made OxyContin into a blockbuster drug.


To me, the most intriguing part of the lawsuit is the allegation that Purdue Pharma at one point considered getting into the addiction recovery business. In an initiative code-named Project Tango, company executives and at least one member of the Sackler family proposed acquiring the rights to sell Narcan, a medication used to reverse overdoses, and Suboxone, which is used to treat opioid addiction. The project was later abandoned. But it highlights the ways in which actual people shaped the making and the contours of the opioid epidemic. Employees at the company and members of the Sackler family were aware of the growing crisis, yet they acted cynically and shirked any moral responsibility in perpetuating it, even aiming to profit off it by expanding their business to treat those who were suffering from it.

We often think of addiction in terms of individual behavior: a man who starts taking oxycodone to treat pain after a car accident and becomes dependent on it; a young woman who starts smoking to relieve stress and finds herself unable to quit. But those who work for pharmaceutical companies, cigarette manufacturers, and advertising agencies have played and continue to play an active role in creating and promoting desire for their products. They help to determine access to them, and, in the case of tobacco companies, cover up research about their harms. Addiction is a disease, but it doesn’t originate solely in brain chemistry or physiology. It exists within a broader social environment that affects one’s exposure to addictive substances, as well as one’s experiences of addiction and recovery. That’s why I find the lawsuit against Purdue Pharma so fascinating. It reveals the usually invisible workings of those individuals behind the scenes whose decisions affect people’s physical and emotional health in ways that are neither natural nor inevitable.

Are You Worthy of Your Health Care? State Medicaid Directors May Soon Get to Decide

This week the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services approved New Hampshire’s bid to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, becoming the fourth such state under new guidelines issued at the beginning of the year by the Trump Administration. Kentucky, Arkansas, and Indiana have also received approval to add work requirements, while applications are pending in six additional states: Arizona, Utah, Kansas, Mississippi, Wisconsin, and Maine.

These types of waivers, which fall under Section 1115 of the Social Security Act, are supposed to give states the flexibility to test local approaches that may differ from federal Medicaid rules, but share the goal of advancing the overall aims of the Medicaid program. States have used them for a variety of purposes in the past, including implementing systems of managed care, expanding coverage to non-traditional Medicaid populations, and extending health care coverage during an emergency. Under the newly approved waivers, Medicaid recipients will be required to work or participate in “community engagement” activities (including job training, caregiving, or volunteering) for 20 hours per week. Those who are pregnant or have disabilities would be exempt. In some states, such as Kentucky, the work rules would only apply to the population that receives Medicaid under the expanded eligibility rules of the Affordable Care Act. In other states, notably Kansas, the rules would affect all beneficiaries, including those who are very poor. Other states have Section 1115 waivers pending to require drug testing for Medicaid recipients, impose lifetime limits on coverage, and impose premiums with disenrollment for nonpayment; such waivers have never been approved, but that may change in the current political climate.

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Since the Trump administration took office in 2017, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services have altered the criteria for considering Section 1115 waivers. In 2015, during the Obama years, the language focused on increasing and strengthening coverage and health outcomes for low-income individuals and improving provider networks for Medicaid beneficiaries. By November 2017, the guidelines had been revised to underscore new priorities: “responsible decision-making,” “upward mobility,” “greater independence,” and “strengthen[ing] beneficiary engagement in their personal healthcare plan.”

This language of empowerment reflects a fundamental shift in ideology, from providing crucial health coverage to a disadvantaged population to trying to ensure that people are not, as the saying goes, “getting something for nothing.” The new guidelines glorify the idea of work for work’s sake, linking employment with increased income and better health outcomes, while decrying what CMS director Seema Verma has called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that keeps people trapped in poverty. Critics have pointed out that nearly 60 percent of non-disabled Medicaid recipients who are able to work already do; imposing work requirements will do nothing to create jobs, and will simply enact punitive measures on those who do not have them. The burden of reporting one’s work hours weekly will create additional hurdles for Medicaid recipients, many of whom already face multiple challenges, while the increased administrative costs may not result in any savings for state and local governments. The new requirements don’t account for those with unstable and unpredictable hours, who may average 80 hours per month but work fewer than 20 hours during some weeks. Moreover, losing one’s health insurance could make it more difficult for someone to find and keep a job. It’s not much of a surprise that an individual with steady employment will have more income, be healthier overall and less likely to suffer from depression than someone who is unemployed. But it’s not at all clear that work itself always produces these results, or if those who are healthier overall are also better equipped to find and keep such jobs.

Previous administrations have rejected Section 1115 waivers that were not consistent with the original aim of the Medicaid program, which is to expand medical coverage to eligible populations. The new work requirements, which will reduce Medicaid rolls by making it harder and more onerous for people to keep their coverage, clearly conflict with this goal. In approving the requirements, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services is defining health care as something that must be earned through a display of worthiness. It imposes a moral imperative on the provision of health care, forcing recipients to prove their fitness to receive government benefits by behaving in ways that are state-sanctioned: working, not doing drugs, demonstrating personal responsibility. The underlying (and familiar) assumption is that poverty is a behavioral issue that can be fixed by punishing abnormal comportment. But the problem is far deeper and more complicated. Medicaid work requirements are both overly punitive and a result of faulty logic. Making it more difficult for low-income individuals to maintain health coverage will not solve poverty. Instead, it will increase inequality, further disadvantage an already vulnerable population, and endanger public health.