D.C. brings HIV testing to the crowd at the DMV

Starting Tuesday, getting tested for HIV in the District will be as easy as renewing a driver's license.

In what District officials say is the first effort of its kind in the nation, the city will partner with a nonprofit group to offer free HIV testing at the Department of Motor of Vehicles office in Penn Branch in Southeast Washington. Participants will receive up to $15 to help defray their DMV costs.

The year-long project would be another way to reach residents in a city where a 2008 epidemiology update concluded that 3 percent of the population had HIV/AIDS. That is well above the 1 percent considered to be a general epidemic, advocates for prevention and city officials said.

"We wanted to have a broad audience and a captive audience. You're captive at the DMV," said Angela Fulwood Wood, chief operations officer of the Family and Medical Counseling Service, a Southeast nonprofit group that already tests about 5,000 District residents a year.

But the program takes two other unusual steps: It offers up to $15 to help offset the costs of DMV services and provides immediate counseling and medical attention. Based on traffic at the Penn Branch DMV office and human behavior in other free testing programs, organizers expect to test about 3,000 people annually, about 15 percent of the customers at the DMV location. Rapid oral test results will be available in 20 minutes.

The goal, however, goes beyond testing. "We're normalizing people's thoughts of testing," Wood said. "You can do organ donation at the DMV. You can do voter registration at the DMV. If people don't want to do it, we can at least talk to them."

City officials chose the Penn Branch DMV, which is in Ward 7, to reach residents in wards 7 and 8, where the HIV infection rate has risen, Wood said.

"This is exactly the kind of innovation we need in this city," said D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large),who called Wood a "rock star" for coming up with the idea. "This is a model for the country in how we bring testing to people on a routine basis."

A. Toni Young, executive director of Community Education Group, said the program will reach residents who do not visit doctors regularly and are apprehensive about going to clinics and testing sites. Going to the DMV gets around the hurdle of "waiting for people to come in and ask for the test," said Young. "We see people we may miss through the medical system."

Those who test positive will receive counseling at the DMV office and more extensive, one-on-one services at CEG's office nearby. "I'm not going to give you a slip of paper and say the onus is on you, now go" get help, Young said. "We will pick them up, take them to Family Medical and then back to the DMV. We will follow up with a call within 24 hours."

The city Health Department is supplying HIV testing kits and educational materials, and the DMV is contributing office space. Family and Medical received $250,000 in funding from Gilead Sciences, a Foster City, Calif.-based biopharmaceutical company, to help cover staff costs and the $15 money orders - made out to the D.C. treasury - for license renewals, address changes and other DMV services.

Gilead spokeswoman Cara Miller said in an e-mail that the project is in keeping with the company's efforts to "normalize" testing in "traditional and non-traditional settings, and help empower local leaders to effectively communicate to their communities the value of knowing one's HIV status."

The program isn't Family and Medical's first attempt at incentive-based testing. In June, the group teamed up with IHOP in Southeast Washington for National HIV Testing Day. The first 100 people tested received $10 coupons toward their meals at the restaurant.

But organizers acknowledge that the DMV, a crowded public place, could be intimidating for people concerned about the stigma of HIV/AIDS, which led to the estimate that 15 percent of customers would participate.

Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) praised the DMV project as "awesome" but wondered whether those tested could choose to learn their status later, after leaving the DMV, if they fear having an emotional outburst.

Wood said data show that there is often a lag between testing, learning the results and getting medical attention but that she would want those who test positive to receive help immediately. "Everybody's not going to want to test at the DMV, but there will be people who say, 'I'm here, I'm waiting,' " Wood said. "They want to know their status."  (9.30.2010, Nikita Stewart, Washington Post Staff Writer)

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