Budget cuts cause Mississippi to stop free HIV testing

Budget cuts cause Mississippi to stop free HIV testing
(Source: WDAM Staff)
(Source: WDAM Staff)

PINE BELT (WDAM) - Forrest County ranks number three out of 82 counties in HIV rates according to the state department of health.

While HIV diagnoses skyrocket in our area and across the state, the budget for free testing has been slashed.

A legislator broke down the new process of getting tested that will add a $25 fee. A man living with the virus said this will hinder the fight against a winnable war.

"I have been positive for 31 years. It was through a random test that I was diagnosed," said Russ Royals, a board member of the AIDS Services Coalition Center.  "You can't live with HIV if you don't know you're positive."

It's a statewide epidemic that Royals believes will continue to thrive as budget cuts hit the state health department.

"It's a very important program. Obviously, Mississippi has one of the higher positive rates for HIV and STDs, and we credit the health department with trying to curb this and offer public information and prevention," said Senator Joey Fillingane, District 41.

Fillingane said budget cuts hit every department. The price of knowing your HIV and STD status goes from free to a charge of $25 starting July 1st.

"Thirty-one years ago, I didn't have 25 dollars, so who knows how long it would have been," Royals said. "It could have been too late when I found out. That's a very possible scenario for a lot of people."

Fillingane said there will now be a means test. If you can afford to pay for the test, you will pay $25.

"Twenty-five dollars are crucial to a lot of citizens," Royals said.

Those in high risk situations will not be charged. It's a move Royals still believes will hinder the fight against rampant reports of infection.

"They're giving away tens of millions of dollars in tax credits to out of state corporations, yet cutting crucial services for its citizens," Royals said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, Mississippi ranks 9th in the nation for HIV infections. Over 10,000 live with the deadly virus every day.

"They're looking at numbers. They're looking at financial numbers. we are human numbers," Royals said.

Royals said poor education and access to health care contribute to the problem. Lastly, he said widespread poverty is contributes greatly.  When given the choice to eat and take care of basic needs, or get tested, in the nation's poorest state, Royals said the choice is obvious.

"We'd be glad to work with the legislature and come up with more viable solutions than what they've come up with at this point," Royals said.

With a tight budget itself, the AIDS Services Coalition still provides free testing with hopes to help stop the stigma. Coming face to face with those affected, these numbers for them are reality.

"It's a winnable war, but we've got to have soldiers.  We need some of those soldiers to come from Jackson. We need help," Royals said.

As of now, there are only four AIDS Service Organizations in the entire state that offer free testing.