President Clinton, appearing before 250 leading AIDS scientists, clinicians and activists, vowed Wednesday to fight any attempts to balance the federal budget by reducing AIDS research spending or by dismantling Medicaid, which he called "a lifeline" for people with the disease.
Despite major spending cuts that have been proposed for numerous programs and agencies, Congress has increased spending for scientific research, including AIDS. But Clinton charged that the current Republican plan to turn Medicaid over to the states, along with a fixed amount of money to spend on it, could result in the reduction or elimination of many medical services and other help for people with AIDS.
Nearly half of those Americans living with HIV or AIDS, including more than 90% of children with AIDS, receive assistance through Medicaid.
"If this Medicaid budget goes through, it is a stake in the heart of our effort to guarantee dignity to the people with AIDS in this country," Clinton said to sustained applause.
Clinton, aware that his support among gays and members of the AIDS community has been waning, was warmly received by participants in the first White House-convened AIDS meeting, a session that included many individuals infected with HIV.
Gay rights groups and AIDS activists have become increasingly unhappy with Clinton for what they see as his failure to follow through on promises to them, not just related to AIDS policy but on other issues as well, such as gays in the military.
On AIDS policy, critics have accused Clinton of ignoring the recommendations of several major AIDS commissions and other reports and of failing to draft a national strategy for combating the epidemic.
Several weeks ago, federal health officials reported that AIDS is now the No. 1 killer of young adults between the ages of 25 and 44 and that the total of AIDS cases in the United States since the epidemic began has reached 500,000.
A handful of demonstrators from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) protested outside the AIDS meeting, calling it a "reelection stunt." And one journalist inside the meeting heckled Clinton at its conclusion. He identified himself as Bob Lederer, an editor with Poz magazine, a publication for persons with HIV.
Clinton listened to the man, and responded: "I am very sorry that there is not a cure. I am very sorry that there is not a vaccine. I regret that everything I have asked for has not been approved by Congress. . . . We will never be happy until we have solved the problem. I won't be and you shouldn't be."
The administration has maintained that it has accomplished much in its battle against the epidemic. Funding for many AIDS-related programs has been increased and the administration has begun social policies to fight discrimination against people with AIDS. But it has acknowledged that it has done a poor job in communicating those achievements to the public.
Clinton vowed to accelerate his administration's efforts to find a cure for the disease saying: "We have never before had a disease we could not conquer. We can conquer this."
Clinton said that he has ordered the preparation of a government-wide research plan for AIDS to be delivered to him within 90 days and has asked Vice President Al Gore to convene a meeting of pharmaceutical industry leaders and scientists to study ways of accelerating the development of vaccines and drugs.
The Food and Drug Administration, in fact, has had such a collaborative panel in existence for several years and its members have been seeking ways to speed up the development of new therapeutics.
Clinton said that he also has asked the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to sponsor a meeting of state and local officials involved in public health and drug prevention to develop an action plan that integrates HIV prevention and substance abuse prevention.