After 25 years, battle for HIV/AIDS patient equality still rages
AIDS Law provides free legal assistance to those infected with HIV/AIDS. It's the only one of its kind in the United States. It stands up for people who don't have the resources to stand up for themselves.
Doctors fight the virus. The AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania fights the stigma.
"That is our part of the battle," said Yolanda French Lollis, managing attorney for the nonprofit public-interest law firm. "To allow people to live their lives, you have to fight stigma on a lot of levels."
AIDS Law provides free legal assistance to those infected with HIV/AIDS — the only organization of its kind in the United States.
On Thursday, the group, which is based in Philadelphia, marks its 25th anniversary with a celebration in Center City.
Since its inception, the law firm says it has helped 38,000 Pennsylvanians and won several landmark cases that resulted in policy changes. The group uses the law to teach lessons about how people with HIV and AIDS deserve to be treated.
"There's always an attempt to treat people differently," Lollis said.
In its 25 years, the project has brought suits against a dentist who refused to treat patients with HIV/AIDS; a company that limited health insurance coverage based on a positive diagnosis; medical technicians who didn't help a collapsed man who was being treated for AIDS; and a company that fired a man because his partner was diagnosed with AIDS.
The stigma manifests itself in every corner.
"As long as there is that fear of being treated differently and being rejected," said Lollis, who joined in 1993, "people will not disclose their status in various situations. And that's the whole problem."
In the beginning, the Project used a "crisis model." "People were sick; they had an immediate need. We'd try to fix that and get their life together for however long their life may be," said Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director, who joined in 1992 as a volunteer.
And now: "How do we support our clients so they can live their lives and have futures, because in fact they have futures now."
Jose de Marco called the AIDS Law Project many times and for a myriad of reasons. "Mostly because I probably could not afford, nor could I find, attorneys that were really well-versed and experts in the field of HIV and AIDS law."
The group helped him fight a discrimination lawsuit about two years ago with a large bus company. He left his AIDS medication on board, and when he tried to retrieve them, the bus driver denied him passage.
"Discrimination and stigma are just as rampant today as it was when the AIDS Law Project was founded," he said.