Legal Assistance is Vital for HIV+ Individuals

Last month, the UCLA School of Law published a report assessing the legal needs of people living with HIV in Los Angeles County. This study, which focused on low-income and unemployed HIV positive people, highlights just how important legal advocacy services are for people living with HIV.

Almost all respondents to this study, 98 percent, reported they needed legal help during the past year. However, very few were able to access legal services. Only 28 percent sought help, and only 16 percent were able to access the help that they needed. With an estimated 58,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in LA County, this suggests that over 47,700 people living with HIV in LA County were unable to access needed legal help.

Respondents reported many barriers to accessing legal services. These barriers included not knowing where to call to ask for legal help, worrying that the legal service provider understood their specific needs as a person living with HIV/AIDS, and being unable to afford legal services.

This significant unmet need for legal assistance directly impacts the health and wellbeing of HIV positive people. Because of the legal issues that they faced, seven out of ten survey respondents reported difficulty carrying on normal life and six out of ten reported stress-related illness. One out of four respondents reported a negative impact on their physical health because of these unmet legal needs. Many also reported difficulty accessing healthcare services or taking medications, as well as financial hardship.

Subgroups in this study had different specific legal needs. For example, Latino/as were more likely to face immigration challenges, while LGBT individuals were more likely to face violence and harassment. However, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, stigma and discrimination against HIV positive people still pose barriers to employment, housing, and healthcare. Thirty-one percent of survey respondents faced discrimination because of their HIV status. The results of this report are clear: affordable, accessible legal services are necessary in order for the most vulnerable people living with HIV to thrive.

Unfortunately legal support services in LA seem to have decreased in recent years. In 2012, the HIV & AIDS Legal Services Alliance closed because of funding cuts. Though this study was conducted in Los Angeles, there’s still a great deal that legal advocacy groups, healthcare providers, and the community at large can learn from this report in San Francisco and beyond. It is an important reminder that a broad network of services, including legal advocacy, is necessary to support people living with HIV.

Two of the most frequent legal areas that HIV positive people in this study faced were health care access and public benefits, which are the primary focus areas of Positive Resource Center (PRC)’s Equal Access to Healthcare Program and Benefits Counseling Program. Almost half (47 percent) of all respondents faced legal issues that related to health care access and three in ten needed legal help with public benefits.

This study highlights the important role that organizations like PRC play in supporting people living with HIV. We provide free legal representation to more than 1,700 people living with HIV/AIDS or mental health disabilities every year. Our team of dedicated attorneys and benefits advocates have years of experience dealing with the specific legal needs of people living with HIV. In 2014, over 93 percent of our clients were extremely low income, a population that this study specified as particularly vulnerable. This report demonstrates the importance of providing legal services to people living with HIV, and PRC is committed to continuing to provide quality legal services to the HIV positive community in San Francisco.

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