By Candace J. Semien
BATON ROUGE—The HIV AIDS Alliance for Region Two, Inc., or HAART, is the 19th largest nonprofit in the state, with a budget of more than $25 million. But with an HIV AIDS population of more than 5,000 people in the nine-parish Baton Rouge region, and more than 20,000 people in state, the need for HAART services far surpasses its budget.
“We have been assisting those with HIV for nearly three decades and it’s been an uphill challenge from the beginning,” said Tim Young, HAART CEO.
In 1995 when HAART first opened its doors, the medical community was focused on keeping people with HIV alive. Since then, doctors and researchers have learned to treat HIV more effectively, which means fewer people are dying and people are living longer with their disease, said Young.
“When I began working at HAART, new medications were literally getting people out of their death beds,” he said.
Many people were seeing health improvements from the new medications that were becoming available, but many still were not, and even those who did often experienced serious side effects. Today, the medications are so effective that someone who acquires HIV can have a normal life expectancy if they adhere to an effective medication regimen.
“Now, we are learning how to assist people who have been living with HIV for as long as HAART has been in existence. That’s an amazing advancement. We assist many to cope with the challenges of helping to raise their grandchildren, something many thought would never be possible,” Young said.
HAART’s original role was to anticipate the services people living with HIV needed and weren’t receiving and to serve as the fiscal agent for Ryan White Funding in the Baton Rouge area with other organizations to provide direct services. “The first thing we did was to recognize the need for a larger network of providers to serve an increasing number of people who were living with HIV disease with the advent of new effective medications. In the late ‘90s, we added Volunteers of America, Family Service of Greater Baton Rouge, and Care South to the network of Ryan White funded providers.”
These relationships aid HAART in providing medical treatment, medication assistance, and case management to assist patients in navigating the Health Care System. HAART also provides medical transportation, dental services, and mental health services.
HAART has established Baton Rouge’s Open Health Care Clinic, located at 3801 North Blvd., to expand medical services and serve the wider community. “Over the past three decades we’ve built an enduring community asset and positioned it to become an integral part of the Health Care Network for decades to come,” Young said. “HAART has grown from a small organization, coordinating funding for a network of providers for a single disease, to one of the largest Community Health Centers in the state, poised to grow its own network of clinics across the city, serving both children and adults from every walk of life.”
“The day of novel treatments is actually already here. Early on, patients had a complex medication regimen that was difficult to achieve and often had side effects, some almost as serious as the disease itself. Multiple pills, some with and some without food, every four hours meaning interrupted sleep and other complications were normal. Now, for most with HIV, treatment is one pill once a day. That’s remarkable when you consider how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time, although a lifetime for some and sadly too late for others. And they achieve complete viral suppression, so no more damage can be done to themselves by the virus and they can’t transmit it to others,” Young said.
But, in a city with the highest rates of newly diagnosed HIV cases in the nation, is HAART positioned to slow down the spread of the virus that cause AIDS? Young explained, “Despite the educational messages, many continue to participate in risky behaviors which expose themselves and others to HIV transmission. We’ve always relied on people changing their behavior and now we have a bio-medical preventative that can protect them even if they don’t take other measures to protect themselves.
“It works a little like birth control (pills) where a person takes it every day to stop the virus from attaching to the immune system if they become exposed,” said Eugene Collins, Director of Prevention for HAART.
“HIV disease is not just a threat to those who acquire it, but to potentially much larger numbers of people if left unchecked. It’s our responsibility to assist persons with HIV, not only to improve their personal health, but to ensure they don’t pass it on to others,” Young said.
After testing positive, Baton Rouge residents are provided services through HAART’s Red-Carpet Linkage Program that gets them connected “immediately” with medical and mental health appointments, employment assistance, and housing. “We provide a total continuum of care, medically and socially,” said Collins.
According to Young, the strongest tools for HAART are the dedication and commitments of the non-profit’s board and staff. “We bring strong technical skills in the areas of medicine, psychology, finance, and marketing to bring awareness about the epidemic in our community and the solutions to limit and reduce its growth. Our new PrEP Program, our new Opioid-Abuse Outreach Program and the broad spectrum of health and wellness services we bring to our patients are our strengths, thereby strengthening the community,” he said.
HAART has survived for 22-years despite the constantly changing health care environment, and HIV care changes even more than health care in general.
“We’ve been successful as a health care resource because we’ve been guided by a strong community-based board of directors, made up of experienced professionals who help us to look ahead and chart a successful vision for the future. Health care will continue to evolve, and HAART will adapt to change so we may continue to pursue our mission and commitment to our community. I’m confident of that,” said Young who is also CEO of the Open Health Clinic.