The role of government-funded assistance programs on HIV testing

Nov 4, 2019
3 MIN. READ
Emeka Oraka previews his 2019 APHA Annual Meeting presentation about the relationship between U.S. safety net programs and HIV eradication efforts. 
Emeka Oraka believes in the power of science and empirical data to inspire meaningful public policy decisions. When he’s not rolling up his sleeves to conduct epidemiological research and statistical analysis, Emeka can often be found onstage at leading public health conferences or on the pages of publications. His latest work investigates the role of government-funded assistance programs on HIV testing rates among adults living in poverty. 

The backdrop for this research is the federal government’s Ending the HIV Epidemic (EHE) plan, which the president unveiled earlier this year. The goal of EHE is to reduce HIV infections in the United States by 90% by 2030. A key component of this plan is early diagnosis, because early detection can lead to improved patient outcomes while preventing transmission to others. 

Emeka’s research began with a question: is being on food stamps or a beneficiary of public assistance a predictor of HIV testing? What is the relationship—if any—between these two things? When he did the research and analyzed the data, Emeka made some compelling connections. He will present his findings at this week’s American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting,  and we asked him to share some highlights with us before he takes the stage. Transcript below:

Q: What will you cover in your presentation?

A: I’ll be sharing our research into government-funded assistance programs and their potential contribution to the Ending the HIV Epidemic (EHE) initiative from the White House. Our results showed that that beneficiaries of public assistance programs—such as Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), human services, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—engaged in HIV testing at a higher rate than non-beneficiaries, regardless of the program. This shows us that public assistance programs can play a helpful role in HIV prevention, but at the same time, the government is aggressively pushing to cut safety net programs. These programs are crucial to the success of the action items outlined in the EHE—so we need to fund them to full capacity. 

Q: How does it feel to go from crunching the numbers to taking the stage to advocate for a public policy position? 

A: Science and public policy should work hand in hand. There are plenty of successful examples of this partnership—adding fluoride to water, removing second-hand smoke exposure from restaurants and hotel rooms. These public health policies were instituted as a direct result of science. We studied, we learned, and we made policy changes based on our findings. That’s how progress happens, and it’s what I love most about my work. 

Q: You’re getting ready to head to Philadelphia for APHA Annual Meeting. What are you most looking forward to about the event?

A. I have two goals. First, I want to get the message out there that we need to keep funding these public assistance programs if we want to end the HIV epidemic. We all know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—I’d like to make the point that it’s a lot cheaper in the long-term to keep our population healthy. 

Q: And your second goal?

A: To demonstrate that ICF is a leader in this field. We are in the conversation, and our people are publishing on this topic. We can speak articulately about this issue alongside our federal colleagues, and that’s what I’m most excited to do at APHA. 

By Emeka Oraka