Despite Federal Recommendations, Community Health Clinics Aren’t Routinely Testing For HIV

A new government report finds that one in five safety-net health centers — federally funded clinics that serve low-income Americans — aren’t routinely testing patients for HIV, even though the Centers for Disease Control began encouraging regular HIV tests back in 2005.

As the global community has continued to make strides to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic over the past several years, health experts have gradually expanded their guidelines on HIV testing, pointing out that the best defense against the spread of the virus is educating all Americans about their HIV status. The U.S. Preventative Task Force, a government-backed panel that determines what preventative health care will be covered under Obamacare, updated their recommendations last year to make HIV testing as routine as regular blood pressure screenings in annual check-ups.

Nevertheless, the health centers that provide care for the country’s poorest residents don’t have enough funding to make sure they can screen everyone for the virus:

The health centers, all of which received money from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), reported a lack of financial resources from patients and sites as one factor that limited their HIV testing.

“Respondents from one health center site reported that patients who were not eligible for free HIV tests were unlikely to pay for tests, and respondents from another health center site reported that patients had difficulty paying even the small office visit fee, let alone an additional testing fee,” the report said. […]

HRSA funds grantees that administer clinics for community health, migrant health, homeless health, and public housing primary care. In 2011, such sites provided care to more than 17 million patients, and, with the CDC estimating one in five people in the U.S. living with HIV doesn’t know his status, HRSA centers can play a critical role in reducing the transmission of the virus, the [Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General] said.

The health clinics that are currently forced to prioritize their resources for HIV testing often can’t focus on regular screenings because they only test patients who categorized at “high-risk” for contracting the virus. But it’s important to do regular screening even for patients who don’t exhibit symptoms, or don’t appear to be at a high risk for contracting HIV, since an estimated 220,000 HIV-positive Americans don’t know their HIV status. In fact, half of the HIV-positive individuals between those ages of 13 and 24 aren’t aware they have the virus because they don’t get tested regularly — which is partly why that age group contributes to more than a quarter of the country’s new HIV infections each year.

Fortunately, Obamacare prioritizes funding for the community health centers that are often on the front lines of providing care for the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Under the health reform law, more than $125 million in grant money will be awarded to about 200 safety-net clinics across the country. If fully implemented, that increased funding will allow community clinics to serve more than twice as many people by 2019 — and potentially better adhere to the CDC’s guidelines on HIV testing.