USG starts free HIV testing

Undergraduate Student Government President Trenton Stone presented at a USG meeting Sept. 10. USG and USC Student Health recently announced a pilot program to provide undergraduate and graduate students with free HIV testing.  (Myra Wu | Daily Trojan)

Undergraduate Student Government has begun providing free HIV testing through a USC Student Health program that aims to combat financial barriers to safe testing and decrease stigmas surrounding sexual health.

The program, funded through a grant provided by USG, started at the beginning of the semester and covers any out-of-pocket costs for testing that are not often covered by many health insurance plans. 

Chief Student Health Officer Sarah Van Orman said most insurance plans cover one annual screening. But further testing, which might be required due to exposure to a disease or the discovery of symptoms of a contracted infection, are often charged to the patient. 

“What we hope to do is address that gap between what’s already covered for students under their clinical preventive service benefit and then what they might run into when they’re out of pocket,” Van Orman said.

Individuals who cannot afford frequent testing risk not diagnosing a sexually-transmitted infection, Van Orman said. According to USG, the grant could also combat this aspect of HIV testing costs.

“The program expansion has the potential to particularly improve the health of students in high-risk categories and those on pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP,” the letter read. “Individuals in these populations are required to undergo more frequent HIV testing, which is not always covered by insurance.”

Discussions between members from USG and Student Health for this initiative began at the start of Spring 2019, USG President Trenton Stone said. According to the letter, only about 7% of students on campus have been screened for HIV compared to the national statistic of 16%. 

According to the letter, the CDC recommends that individuals are tested at least once in their lifetime. 

The two groups developed this program to combat certain factors that affect USC’s screening percentage, including limited access. According to the letter, some students travel to the LGBT Center in Hollywood to receive free testing, which might not always be a financially viable option. Transportation can be a financial disincentive that might further discourage individuals from getting the tests they need.

There are also stigmas surrounding sexual health and testing that might discourage students from receiving adequate testing or getting tested in the first place, Stone said.

Stone, a junior majoring in philosophy and international relations (global business), hopes the initiative can normalize STI testing on campus and increase the number of students who seek testing at the University.

According to Stone and USG Vice President Mahin Tahsin, the grant will only last for this school year since the program was developed as a pilot to see how the initiative will affect the on-campus testing rate. Student Health hopes to absorb the costs of the program to make free HIV testing a permanent service if the pilot is successful.

Tahsin, a senior majoring in business administration and economics, says a lot of students understand the importance of access to STD testing, especially at University health centers.

Van Orman said access to proper health care affects the rates at which different groups receive testing. Low-income neighborhoods or communities that uphold negative stigmas around testing tend to have higher rates of a condition, she said.

Students who would like to schedule HIV testing or other STI screening can schedule an appointment with USC Student Health on the MySHR portal or at (213) 740-WELL.

According to Van Orman, students can also fill out an online form on the MySHR portal that bypasses the need to go to a health center to schedule an appointment. A nurse will screen the form and place an order for the desired test. Then students can simply visit the testing lab and go through the screening process.