At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s, John Laird joined with five other gay men to launch the Santa Cruz AIDS Project in order to support people living in the seaside city who were becoming HIV-positive. Laird also helped to address the health crisis from inside City Hall.
He served on the Santa Cruz City Council, including two stints as the city’s mayor, during most of that decade. After being termed out of office in 1990, Laird was hired as executive director of the AIDS agency, a position he held through 1993.
Nearly three decades later, now serving in California’s state Senate, Laird is authoring a bill aimed at improving the social services HIV-positive seniors can access. His Senate Bill 258, introduced Tuesday, January 26, aims to include older people with HIV as part of the population of “greatest social need” when it comes to programs and services administered by the California Department of Aging.
“Right now senior services are targeted to certain older people with needs and now it will make sure older people with HIV are part of that target group,” explained Laird in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter.
While seniors living with HIV have some programs and services specially devised for them funded through the federal Ryan White CARE Act and by local health agencies, Laird pointed out they are not designated as a community that should be prioritized under the federal Older Americans Act. A network of 33 Area Agencies on Aging across the state oversee the programs funded by the OAA.
“This bill would add them to the priority list,” said Laird, 70, who is the oldest member of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus.
According to a fact sheet about SB 258 that Laird’s office shared with the B.A.R., California’s current definition of “greatest social need” under its OAA programs includes various characteristics such as physical or mental disability, language barriers, and cultural or social isolation caused by, among other things, racial and ethnic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
With people living with HIV now advancing well into retirement age because of progress in treatment for the virus, Laird argued it is time California expand its definition of “greatest social need” to include HIV-positive seniors. The Golden State would be following the lead of Illinois, which in 2019 became the first state to designate older adults living with HIV as such a target population.
As of 2018, more than 50% of people living with HIV in California were aged 50 years or older. People 50 and older also accounted for 15% of new HIV diagnoses in 2018, according to a report from the state’s Office of AIDS Surveillance.
“As someone who was an HIV agency director during the height of the epidemic before the drug cocktail, we were trying to just keep people alive,” recalled Laird, referring to the introduction in 1995 of the first antiretroviral therapy for HIV. “Now with improvements in treatments over the last decades, we are facing a generation of people aging into the senior category with HIV.”
National LGBTQ senior advocacy organization SAGE noted in a 2020 report by its HIV and Aging Policy Action Coalition that older adults living with HIV face unique challenges and barriers to accessing services. The issue is particularly acute in smaller cities and rural areas where there is a lack of competent health care providers and limited service availability.
“There are services for older adults that include meals, job training, senior centers, caregiver support, transportation, health promotion, and benefits enrollment. It would make sure that older adults with HIV are considered one of the priority groups for all of those services,” Laird said of his legislation.
According to Laird’s office, SAGE, APLA Health, and the statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California are co-sponsors of SB 258.
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