Congresswoman Donna M. Christensen
The Policy Maker
Congresswoman Christensen’s commitment to fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in communities of color began during her 29 years of service as a family physician and health administrator in the Virgin Islands. In that time, she treated many patients at the beginning of the deadly epidemic and worked with their families and friends to deal with the presence of this strange and scary new disease in their lives.’
“I can remember back ten or so years ago, when I was still practicing medicine and taking care of patients who were HIV positive or who had AIDS, and the obstacles they faced, just getting treatment and lab tests done, not to mention discrimination by the public and health care providers alike.”
When she decided to seek public office in 1996, one of her motives was to transfer what she had learned over the years from attending to the needs of her patients to the policy level. As the first female physician to serve in Congress (representing the U.S. Virgin Islands in the House of Representatives), Congresswoman Christensen, under the leadership of Congressman Louis Stokes and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, was part of 1998’s historic effort in to have $156 million appropriated specifically to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in African American communities.
The Minority AIDS Initiative, as it has come to be known, was the main feature of the call for a “State of Emergency” to deal with the growing infection rates among people of color. This was the first time the medical concerns of African Americans were brought to the attention of national policymakers. As a result, appropriation funds were disbursed among community and faith based organizations with a track record of working with people of color and thus, a greater ability to reach infected residents. Since then, the Initiative’s annual budget has more than doubled and Christensen has carried the baton to ensure that the federal government lives up to its commitment to aggressively fighting the epidemic in minority communities.
Currently serving her fourth term in Congress, Christensen has been the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus’s Health Braintrust since the 1998 retirement of Stokes, founder of the trust. And while being in charge of the trust could seen as tantamount to heading up political powder keg, the notion hasn’t made Christensen shy away from addressing critical topics, such as needle exchange programs.
“We need to urge and then support our leaders to do what is necessary and right regardless of political risks, which I feel are largely overblown anyway. The facts are there on needle exchange for example. Programs have been proven not to increase drug use, but may even help individuals get into drug treatment, and most importantly it prevents the spread of HIV and saves lives.” In any case, the lives of people must not be sacrificed on the altar of political ideology.”
A willingness to look at the issues squarely in the eyes has helped the congresswoman affect change. In 1999, after being made aware of the disparities among racial and ethnic groups in the incidence of invasive pneumoccocal disease, Christensen, with the support of her colleagues in the CBC and other minority caucuses, appealed to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which advises the Centers for Disease Control, to recommend the use of the first vaccine to help prevent the disease in infants and toddlers. On her appeal, the ACIP voted to recommend the use of the vaccines in children aged 2 to 5, a critical age for African Americans, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, children with sickle cell anemia, HIV, chronic diseases, and those who are immuno-compromised. It was the first time that the panel voted to accord special consideration to African-American children.
Christensen continues to spearhead the policy development to address the health care disparities between Caucasians and non-Caucasians, working with the Hispanic, Asian-Pacific and Native American caucuses to introduce and support relevant legislation. With recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control showing that the AIDS epidemic continues to rage in African-American and Latino communities, the CBC Health Braintrust, along with other minority caucuses, have joined forces to demand $540 million to fight the epidemic.
Christensen has also addressed the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, and as the only member of Congress from the English-speaking Caribbean, she has made sure that the Caribbean, which has been heavily impacted by the virus, is not left out. In the last session of Congress, she worked with Congressman Rangel of New York to expand coverage under the president’s emergency plan for AIDS Relief to ensure that 14 additional Caribbean Countries would be included, in addition to Haiti and Guyana. She has also joined Congresswoman Waters in pressing pharmaceutical companies to provide affordable HIV drugs for Africans and other people of color. So much to do, yet Christensen remains committed to doing all she can and is encouraged by the response of her constituents in the Virgin Islands.
“The Virgin Islands is among the top 10 US jurisdictions in AIDS incidence. Although we have a long way to go in prevention, I am proud of the changes that I have seen in the communities understanding, acceptance and willingness to reach out and help care for those infected, and the growth and increased effectiveness of our community and faith based organizations.”
Christensen is the recipient of many honors and awards, especially for her work in health. In recent years she was honored as a “Distinguished Alumna” by George Washington University, and received The Leadership in National Health Policy Award from Morehouse School of Medicine, and the National Center on Primary Care in Atlanta, Georgia, the Distinguished Service Award from the Howard University School of Medicine, and an honorary Doctor of Laws from Moravian College in Bethlehem Pennsylvania.