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Weekend Read: When it comes to health care, the stakes – and obstacles – are high for LGBT Southerners

When Dr. Thomas Dobbs practiced in Hattiesburg, in southeast Mississippi, some patients drove almost four hours to see him.

The only thing worse than a drive of that length? Not making the trip at all.

“I had an individual hit me up on Instagram for help — he’s positive,” said Gerald Gibson of a man infected with H.I.V.  Gibson works at the only clinic in Mississippi created to serve gay black men.

“I said, ‘Come to the clinic. If you don’t have transportation, I’ll send a car.’ He said, ‘It’s not that simple. My family thinks I can be healed religiously.’”

Gibson paused, then explained to Donald G. McNeil Jr. for The New York Times: “He’s not on medication because they think they can pray the H.I.V. away.”

Nationally, gay and bisexual black men face a 50 percent lifetime risk of H.I.V. infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and more than half of all new H.I.V. infections each year occur in the South.

That’s due to a lot of factors, including the region’s history.

“People have heard of the Tuskegee experiment,” Regi Stevenson told McNeil, recalling when the government intentionally withheld treatment from hundreds of syphilitic black Alabamians. “My grandfather won’t go to a doctor until he’s almost dead.”

Another reason the South is leading the country in H.I.V. infections is legal. In Mississippi, for example, knowingly infecting someone with H.I.V. can mean a decade in prison.

“People don’t even want to get tested because if they know their status, they’re responsible,” Gibson told McNeil.

But perhaps the biggest reason is financial. Mississippi has more rural hospitals at “high financial risk” than any other state. If they close, Mississippians could lose the few health care options they have.

Of course, many can’t access medical care at all. Mississippi has the seventh-highest uninsured rate in the country; over a quarter million people are not covered. Wages in Mississippi are so low that many full-time workers qualify for Medicaid, but the state rejected the Medicaid expansion offered to states under the Affordable Care Act.

“Medication has become the simple part of H.I.V.,” Dr. Leandro A. Mena, the medical director of the clinic in Jackson, told McNeil. “What’s been missing is the political will.”

We’re doing all we can to create that will. We sued to stop a Trump administration scheme in Kentucky and Arkansas to strip Medicaid coverage from tens of thousands of people.

The stakes in the South are high, and they’re even higher for LGBT Southerners. States should be trying to make access to health care easier, not harder.

We’re committed to making sure they do.

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week: 

SPLC's Weekend Reads are a weekly summary of the most important reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequity, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Reads every Saturday morning.