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Students to testify on the Hill

Sixteen Duke seniors will appear today before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions to advocate the reauthorization and revision of the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act.

The Ryan CARE Act serves as a safety-net provider of medical treatment and support services for uninsured or underinsured individuals living with the HIV disease.

The act, originally passed in 1990, was reauthorized in 1996 and 2000 but expired Sept. 30, 2005.

The students, members of Duke's health policy certificate program, will give a 15-minute presentation and participate in a 45-minute discussion with staffers and possibly senators from 16 different states-including Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina.

Students cited the disease's changing nature as one reason it is important to reauthorize and revise the RWCA.

Benjamin Rowland and Nazaneen Homaifar were elected by their classmates to lead the presentation. All students in the class will participate in the question and answer session.

"I feel very privileged to represent not only our class but the University," Rowland said. "This is a great opportunity for seniors to move beyond the academic realm into a contemporary political setting."

Although the specific recommendations will not be released until 11 a.m. today, Homaifar said the main focus of the recommendations are on medical adherence and disparity of care.

"I am very excited. Many of us in class want to get involved on the policy level, and this is a great opportunity to practice the skills we need," she added.

Kathryn Whetten, an associate professor at Duke's Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy and the professor teaching the health policy certificate capstone course, said this is the first time a group of college students will present before a senate subcommittee.

Whetten tried to prepare the students for the challenges inherent in such a massive project.

"I told the students on the first day, 'You guys are going to hate each other because you will be working so closely with one another, and you have one goal,'" Whetten said, laughing.

Rowland agreed there were obstacles during the semester-long preparation for their presentation.

"The greatest challenges were incorporating every individual's research and presenting them coherently in 15 minutes, which really isn't a lot of time," he said.

In order to help them prepare, Whetten made sure the students understood how different programs such as Medicare and Medicaid worked in relation to the Act. The students also learned the areas of expertise of their fellow classmates so they could answer questions immediately instead of hesitating or interrupting each other.

Whetten also scheduled a mock presentation Friday afternoon with faculty members posing as actual senators and staffers, so the students could prepare for the types of questions or accusations that may arise Monday.

Although the atmosphere was for the most part serious-and at times hostile- in order to create the type of atmosphere the students will experience, even the faculty could not help occasionally relishing in their brief acting stint as senators and staffers.

When a faculty member, posing as the representative of North Carolina, accused the students that the act would be more helpful to states like New York than ones like his own, Whetten, posing as the staffer from New York, leaned across the table and stared at him. "Do you know how powerful I am in the Senate?" Whetten quipped.

After the question and answer session, the panel offered suggestions to the students including recommendations for stronger talking points, on important topics that need to be researched further and on their presence during the presentation.

"They did a great job. They were very thorough, and they were well prepared," said Dr. Michael Mugavero, an Infectious Disease fellow.

Whetten said she will be accompanying students in the session but will let them lead the entire presentation unless they come across a question they do not know how to answer. "I really want it to be clear they are the presenters," Whetten said. "These are not necessarily the recommendations I would have made. These are the ones they came up with."

Senators will make recommendations to the White House concerning the RWCA later in March.

"Hopefully [our presentation] will influence policy," Rowland said. "We would like our recommendations to be sincerely considered."

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