UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Liza Conyers, professor of education (rehabilitation and human services), was invited by Harold Phillips, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, to make a brief presentation to leading federal officials on Monday to engage their participation in national strategic planning to end the HIV epidemic.
Conyers presented with her colleague Mark Misrok, executive director of the National Working Positive Coalition, and shared her insights and recommendations on how to address economic needs as key drivers of negative HIV care and prevention outcomes. She highlighted ways in which leaders from the Departments of Labor and Education can partner with leaders from the Department of Health and Human Services to reduce the economic disparities associated with vulnerability to HIV by improving access to vocational training and employment services.
“The Biden administration has a good understanding of the role that key social determinants of health such as economic, racial and health disparities play in vulnerability to HIV,” said Conyers.
The Domestic Policy Council is now requiring that the National HIV/AIDS Strategy be updated by Dec. 1, 2021, to include contributions from more federal departments including the departments of Labor and Education, which, according to Conyers, historically have not been engaged in efforts to end the HIV epidemic.
Conyers is a faculty member in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education, and her research has focused on the impact of vocational rehabilitation and workforce development services on individual and public health outcomes, social determinants of health, psychosocial and cultural aspects of disability, and program evaluation of integrated vocational and HIV prevention interventions.
Conyers serves on the statewide HIV Planning Group and is Chair of an ad-hoc committee on HIV and employment. In 2018, she was appointed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to the State Board of Vocational Rehabilitation and she currently serves as the co-principal investigator for the Pennsylvania Expanded HIV Testing Initiative and for the HIV and hepatitis component of the State Opioid Response grant.
One of the main issues that Conyers addressed at the meeting is the need for cross-sector coordination and collaboration across government and community-based health, workforce development, education, housing, legal and other service systems.
“There aren’t enough vocational services, period,” Conyers said. “Although Supplemental Security Income was established to ensure that people who are elderly or have disabilities would not have to survive on incomes below the poverty level, the fact that this program has basically not changed in almost 50 years has effectively committed those who currently receive those benefits to lives of poverty.”
In addition to the need to update the Supplemental Security Income levels, HIV service providers and case managers need more training in how to help people evaluate, consider and potentially seek employment, especially since advancements in HIV treatments have improved health outcomes and many are no longer eligible for disability benefits.
Conyers and Misrok recently co-hosted a National Convening on HIV and Employment. A key recommendation that came from that convening, said Conyers, is the need to expand access to community-located employment services for people living with or at greater vulnerability to HIV. One of the ways that can be accomplished, she said, is by establishing flexible private and government funding initiatives to support implementation of and sustain HIV-focused employment services programs in settings where people receive their HIV care.
A well-rounded strategy for tackling the HIV epidemic, Conyers said, requires a strong focus on the social determinants of health. A lack of access to food, adequate income and other services all can undermine the health and well-being of people with or vulnerable to HIV.
“It’s really important to bring everybody on board to address the social determinants that fuel HIV, and educational interventions have a key role to play in ending the HIV epidemic.” said Conyers. “It is great to see so much interest across the federal government.”