2020-2021 Chair’s Challenge: Leading with Policy

Marlene McNeese

I am pleased and excited to assume the role of NASTAD Board Chair for the 2020-2021 term. I look forward to building on the foundation that has been laid by my predecessor, Johanne Morne, and her Chair’s Challenge – The Time is NOW: End the Epidemics. I am eager to continue the work of ending the HIV and hepatitis epidemics with my Chair’s Challenge, “Leading with Policy.” It emphasizes the importance of ending the HIV and hepatitis epidemics with a renewed commitment to federal, state, and local policies that provide the foundation for access to prevention, care, and treatment. This commitment comes at a time when our public health and healthcare systems are being strained under an unprecedented public health crisis. A crisis that, much like the infectious diseases we focus on, is devastating Black and Brown communities. As a membership organization whose mission is to support systems and programs through a social justice framework, we have a unique role to play in shaping the policies that come out of this crisis in a way that ensures equitable access to prevention, care, and treatment and meaningfully addresses social determinants of health.

The current COVID-19 pandemic exposes health inequities in the nation’s public health space by disproportionately affecting marginalized communities. The current healthcare policies have not only failed in ensuring equitable access to basic services, they have failed to recognize the dignity and value of every human life. The failures and successes of our nation’s response to COVID-19 will shape policies for years to come. We must apply a health equity and anti-racism lens to our state and local policies to ensure that they are providing a foundation to combat stigma and improve equitable access to services. This work must include meaningful engagement of communities most impacted by HIV and hepatitis to ensure that policies reflect and serve them. As Board Chair, I will work with NASTAD to develop a webinar series that addresses approaches to improving health equity and access in state and local policy. We must strive to eradicate stigma, racism, discrimination, and prejudice from these policies in order to achieve optimal health outcomes for all.

State and local policies have the potential to transform systems, such as Medicaid policies that expand access, modernization of HIV and hepatitis criminalization laws, expanded legal access to syringe service programs (SSPs), and data modernization policies that encourage innovative and person-centered use of public health data. One of my goals as board chair is to increase NASTAD’s engagement around state advocacy by sharing success stories with state and local governments, in addition to Congressional staff, that highlight Medicaid, SSPs, HIV criminalization, and data. I encourage jurisdictions to share their stories that prioritize these topics in order to inspire change and action within other jurisdictions.

We cannot end any epidemic – much less the syndemics of HIV and hepatitis, along with related conditions like drug-related overdoses, etc.– with limited government grant funding and a patchwork safety net programs alone; our policy approaches must engage every aspect of our healthcare system and prioritize sustainable approaches to programs and initiatives. NASTAD has a duty to engage with Congress and advocate for funding and HIV and hepatitis programs and initiatives. During my term as Chair, I am going to encourage NASTAD members to contact their Members of Congress and I hope to see an increase of NASTAD members participation in Capitol Hill educational visits. It is imperative that we are on the front-lines of promoting policies that benefit the lives of people living with HIV, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases.

I am assuming the role of Board Chair during an unprecedented time in our nation’s history. My goal is to continue our sharpened focus and boldly lead with pride, innovation, and specifically, policy, in order to achieve a world free of HIV and hepatitis.