Julie Sneider

Agency sees progress – and more work – in AIDS fight

By - May 10th, 2010 04:00 am

Photo by Jaci Berkopec for the Factionist courtesy flickr.com

As Bill Keeton describes it, the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin opened as a social service agency 25 years ago to help people with AIDS prepare for death.

How times have changed. As advancements in anti-retroviral drug treatments have evolved since 1985, so too has the ARCW’s mission. Today the center exists to help people with HIV live long and healthy lives, says Keeton, the center’s director of government relations and communications.

With an annual budget of $12 million and office locations in nine Wisconsin cities, the ARCW is one of the largest, most comprehensive AIDS health and social service organizations in the country, not to mention the largest and fastest-growing provider of HIV health care in the state. The center serves about 1,000 medical patients, 1,200 dental patients and 400 mental health patients a year. Through its AIDS prevention services, it makes about 150,000 annual contacts with people who are at risk for HIV.

Photo courtesy Ebby and flickr

This year the ARCW is marking its 25th anniversary with a number of special events and activities, including hosting Gov. Jim Doyle at the ARCW Medical Center and headquarters in downtown Milwaukee last week. The governor came to the center to sign Senate Bill 647, a new law that will help Wisconsin secure more federal matching funds through Medicaid for ARCW and other AIDS health care service organizations.

Keeton says the additional Medicaid funding will recognize the comprehensive model of medical, dental and social services at ARCW.  The four-story ARCW clinic at 820 Plankinton Ave. in Milwaukee offers a “one-stop shop” where a patient can visit a staff doctor about a medical concern, see a dentist about a toothache, meet with a social worker for help in finding a place to live, talk to a psychologist about a mental health problem, ask a staff attorney a legal question and get a bag of groceries from the food pantry.

Photo courtesy Bitpicture on flickr.com

“One thing we’ve learned about people with HIV is that we can’t just give someone a bottle of pills and say, ‘Go get healthy,’ ” Keeton says. Rather, patients need access to a host of services that help them manage their lives as well as their disease. And because about 30 percent of the patients have no health insurance, the ARCW administers a lot of those services for free. Last year alone the center provided $1.8 million in uncompensated health care.

The center’s model of comprehensive care is unique among AIDS service organizations in the Midwest, Keeton says. Its work also will be needed for some time to come.

According to the state Department of Health Services, HIV infection remains a significant public health concern in Wisconsin, where the number of new cases o increased 11 percent last year  and 32 percent since 2001. But those percentages are for confirmed cases. Keeton says as many as 20 percent of people with HIV don’t know they have it, which means they’re not getting the medical treatment necessary to extend their lives and are more likely to spread the infection to others.

“We know people are living much longer and healthier lives with HIV, and that is very positive,” Keeton says. “But we also know that every day in Wisconsin we are setting a new record for people living with HIV. We’re up over 7,000 confirmed cases, and we know the true number is higher than that.”

So while ARCW staff and supporters pause this year to recognize the social, scientific and medical progress against AIDS over the past 25 years, they also recognize there’s much more work to be done.

Three upcoming events in Milwaukee will recognize the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin’s 25th anniversary:  A benefit performance of the Broadway musical Rent will be given May 23 at the Skylight Opera Theatre; a “Red Ribbon Patron” luncheon will be served June 16 at the Grain Exchange; and select panels from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt will be on display June 8-20 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The panels include the original panel ARCW designed in 1987 to honor people with AIDS from Milwaukee.

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