Saturday, January 9, 2016

AIDS and Politics: Reagan Seeks a Cure

Under the headline “Reagan Defends Financing for AIDS,” the New York Times stated, in the words of reporter Philip Boffey, that President Ronald Reagan and

his Administration was already making a ''vital contribution'' to research on the disease.

The Times article appeared in September 1985. This was relatively early in the history of the disease, which had been utterly unknown only several years before. Early in Reagan’s first term in office,

he had been supporting research into AIDS, acquired immune deficiency sydrome, for the last four years and that the effort was a “top priority” for the Administration.

Reagan encountered some resistance for directing both funding and attention to the illness. But he “publicly addressed the issue of the lethal disease that has claimed thousands of victims, primarily among male homosexuals, intravenous drug addicts,” and other high-risk demographic segments.

Reagan’s opponents were concerned about sending large amounts of taxpayer dollars to various types of medical research. They argued that, while AIDS was subject to therapy, management, and treatment, it would be misleading to raise hope of an actual ‘cure.’

Nonetheless, Reagan’s “administration had provided or appropriated some half a billion dollars for research on AIDS since he took office in 1981.”

Reporting about Reagan’s effort to find help for those who suffered with the disease, Carl Cannon writes about Reagan’s meetings with people like

Los Angeles gay activist David Mixner, a friend of future president Bill Clinton. “Never have I been treated more graciously by a human being,” Mixner said of his meeting with Reagan.

As a former Hollywood actor, Reagan was a friend of Rock Hudson, who was dying of the disease. Although Reagan was advocating for AIDS funding,

it was Hudson who wouldn’t discuss AIDS; Reagan actually mentioned the disease publicly for the first time two weeks before his friend passed away.

Reagan had been addressing AIDS since early in his first term in office. By the beginning of his second term, he was becoming more vocal on the topic.

Although some opponents claimed that he never mentioned sickness until he’d already been in office for seven years, he had in fact addressed it clearly and repeatedly several years earlier.

Reagan first mentioned AIDS, in response to a question at a press conference, on Sept. 17, 1985. On Feb. 5, 1986, he made a surprise visit to the Department of Health and Human Services where he said, “One of our highest public health priorities is going to be continuing to find a cure for AIDS.” He also announced that he’d tasked Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to prepare a major report on the disease. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, Reagan dragged Koop into AIDS policy, not the other way around.

But more than speaking early and often about the matter, Reagan consistently provided a budget for it.

The administration increased AIDS funding requests from $8 million in 1982 to $26.5 million in 1983, which Congress bumped to $44 million, a number that doubled every year thereafter during Reagan’s presidency.

Nor did Reagan shy away from direct involvement in the matter. Carl Cannon notes that, “in 1983, early in the AIDS crisis,” Reagan’s “HHS Secretary, Margaret Heckler,” with Reagan’s approval,

went to the hospital bedside of a 40-year-old AIDS patient named Peter Justice. Heckler, a devout Catholic, held the dying man’s hand, both out of compassion and to allay fears about how the disease was spread.

“We ought to be comforting the sick,” said Ronald Reagan’s top-ranking health official, “rather than afflicting them and making them a class of outcasts.”

“I’m delighted she’s here,” Justice said. “I’m delighted she cares.”

Peter Justice and other AIDS patients like him appreciated Reagan’s sincere desire to support and help them.

Because of Reagan’s efforts, significant progress has been made in managing the disease with various therapies, treatments, and medications. There is reason to expect more progress in the future. A true ‘cure,’ however, remains unlikely.

Since that time, substantial progress and meaningful help has been developed for AIDS patients. Ironically, not much came of the federally-funded efforts, during Reagan’s administration or under later presidents. The most effective medications, treatments, and therapies were developed outside the government in private-sector research.

Nonetheless, Reagan’s efforts were laudable and demonstrated an ethical attempt to render assistance to those who were suffering.