A partnership between the USC Undergraduate Student Government and USC Engemann Student Health Center created an initiative for free HIV testing on campus, a fight LGBTQ groups at USC partook in for years.
Prior to the initiative with USG, HIV tests at Engemann cost about $20. If students wanted to add STD testing to their visit, the cost could go over a hundred dollars. The school currently offers coverage for a single annual test through its USC Student Health Insurance Plan, but people at higher risk for contracting HIV, particularly men who have sex with men, are recommended to be screened every three to six months by the CDC.
The frequency and cost of HIV testing become a financial barrier to those not covered by insurance, according to Michael Gorse, the assistant director of the LGBT Resource Center.
“Access to free HIV testing has been an issue for a while now, especially for students who are low income or who would rather not get tested to save money rather than being able to take care of themselves,” Gorse said.
LGBTQ groups on campus have worked hard for years to provide access to free HIV testing, he said.
In the past, the USC LBGT Resource Center and other LGBTQ groups on campus have brought in non-profit community partners in the past to offset costs. Even with the resources available, only 7 percent of USC students have undergone HIV screening at Engemann.
USG funded the free HIV testing initiative to change those numbers by reducing the obstacles students face when looking to get tested. With the money left over from last year’s USG budget, the executive team decided to put it into this pilot program that they believe will reflect an increase in testing at Engemann.
“The goal for us is to sponsor this and give students the opportunity to have no financial and transportation barriers,” USG President Trenton Stone said. “We’re going to really use it as a pilot program to be able to see, if those barriers don’t exist, how many students use the program.”
If the results fall in their favor, Stone and USG Vice President Mahin Tahsin hope the health center or a different department at USC will continue to fund the program past the pilot and possibly expand it to STD testing.
Rickey Bluthenthal, the Professor of Preventive Medicine, said free HIV testing is of great importance on campus to prevent it from spreading.
“College campuses in general are good locations to have robust testing because there are creative environments where if HIV gets introduced, it might spread rapidly,” Professor Bluthenthal said. “So it’s good to have a pre-active, robust, routine HIV testing to prevent that from happening.”
The new grant not only helps solve the difficulty of free HIV testing that LGBTQ groups have paid much effort to achieve but also shows people’s growing awareness of sexually transmitted diseases.
According to the CDC, 14 percent of the population is undiagnosed as HIV positive. Blaise Guerriero, the USC LGBT Resource Center graduate assistant, said the stigmatization of HIV prevents people from getting tested, risking the spread of HIV.
“Trying to have open dialogues about [HIV] is going to be extremely crucial,” Guerriero said. “The student organizations need to be able to actually have an open and honest dialogue and conversations in regards to HIV.”
Non-profit organizations like AIDS Health Foundation, or AHF, and APLA Health offer free HIV testing and provide programs that de-stigmatize the disease, especially for the LGBTQ community. However, their locations are far from USC campus and typically centralize their locations in Hollywood.
USG’s free HIV testing initiative provides access to these services some students travel far to obtain, Stone said. Now students can get tested by scheduling an appointment with the health center through mySHR like they would with any other health appointment.
After years of organizing free HIV testing on campus through outside organizations, Gorse shared how he is hopeful the pilot will make a change in sexual health resources at Engemann.
“We’ve been doing a lot of hard work, and it’s just exciting to know that finally the university is implementing this program and expanding access to [HIV testing],” Gorse said. “I’m very hopeful that this [program] would continue throughout the next couple of years at least.”