Editorial: HIV/AIDS hotline shows diminishing returns

Published Dec 7, 2012 at 04:00AM

In 1994, Oregon’s HIV/AIDS hotline received 10,219 calls. Last year the number dropped to 882, and this year it’s even lower.

As a result, state officials may shut the hotline down when funding runs out in March, according to a report in Willamette Week. The theory is that there are better ways to reach the target population.

The change reflects two important realities.

First is the fact that improved drugs mean HIV/AIDS is no longer the death sentence it once was. Second is that officials must assure every expenditure is cost-effective in this time of exploding health care costs.

Critics say Oregon is too slow to diagnose HIV/AIDS, falling behind the national average. Michael Anderson-Nathe, of the Cascade AIDS Project, also told Willamette Week the shutdown will affect the hotline’s website and eliminate an anonymous way for people to get information. No doubt there are some for whom the hotline and its website are an important entry point for getting help.

But officials make a convincing argument that maintaining the hotline is a case of diminishing returns. Ruth Helsley, HIV prevention program manager for the Oregon Health Authority, told Willamette Week the hotline isn’t leading to increased testing numbers, and funds can be used more effectively to pay for condom distribution, needle exchange, HIV testing and connecting patients with health care.

It’s a triumph of modern medicine and improving social acceptance that the hotline is less critical than in years past, and officials must make tough choices about the best way to spend limited dollars. But if the hotline is shut down, health officials will need to watch the numbers carefully to assure progress continues, and make adjustments if evidence shows otherwise.