Up and Running

Powerful new AIDS-fighting drugs seem to be working. And so are the people who take them.

Business owner Ron Partridge is feeling pretty good these days, which is a bit surprising. His Internet startup company, Pear Tree Communications, and its showpiece Web site, Gay Colorado Online, are currently sailing the rough waters common to many new online businesses: cash-flow problems, internal conflicts, and a lack of advertisers.

But Partridge seems relaxed, even happy. After all, he never really planned on running his own business. He had stopped working in 1989. Sick with HIV and living off $517 a month in medical-disability insurance, the only thing he planned on was dying. That didn't work out, either.

"I saw the real possibility that I'd be living for another twenty or thirty years as opposed to dying," says the 39-year-old Partridge, who lost his life partner to the virus in 1994.

That's because Partridge is one of a growing number of people with AIDS who, with the help of a powerful new drug therapy, are doing more than merely surviving the virus; they're thriving. The treatment, which includes the much-touted protease inhibitors, has allowed many people with AIDS to leave their sickbeds--deathbeds, in some cases--and pick up where they left off with their lives.

Although drug therapy is not a cure and is too new for scientists to predict its long-term effectiveness, those who have responded well to the drugs have wasted no time in making the most of their renewed health. For a good number of people, including Partridge, that means getting back to work. But lingering health concerns, coupled with financial ones, can make that a tricky proposition.

Partridge, who takes a two-drug combination but not protease inhibitors, shows only the faintest traces of the HIV virus in his bloodstream, while the cells that help him fight infections (T cells) are rebounding. With increased energy and--for perhaps the first time in eight years--a vision of the future, the onetime computer support technician began itching to get back into the daily grind last year.

After a preliminary job search, however, he began to encounter obstacles. Not only were his computer skills out of date, but he wasn't as energetic as he'd once been. And the seven-year gap in his resume didn't exactly thrill prospective employers. (One asked him if he had been in prison.)

In light of these challenges, Partridge decided that starting his own business--particularly one in the new online industry--was the way to go. Being his own boss allows him to develop a flexible schedule. Partridge can work from his apartment if he chooses to, and if he feels run down while he's at his office, he can return home to rest. "I have to be conservative and make sure I don't try to do too many things in one day," says Partridge. Otherwise, depleted energy reserves make him more susceptible to colds and other minor infirmities and hinder his ability to concentrate.

Once things are more stable at Pear Tree, Partridge hopes to work with the Colorado AIDS Project and Emily Griffith Opportunity School to help people infected with HIV get back to work by providing computer and Internet training in a flexible work environment.

That flexibility is crucial for those eager to return to work, according to Rob Humrickhouse, director of Get Back to Work, a nascent program at the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago that helps people with AIDS re-enter the workforce. Though now only a trickle of people are in this situation, Humrickhouse soon expects a flood--and with it, serious concerns about how to make the transition.

Disability insurance, for example, often poses a problem. People on Social Security disability (SSDI) earn benefits based on the amount that they have paid into the fund through payroll deductions. Those who have not paid enough into the fund receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is paid on the basis of need. But those with disability insurance--public or private--have a limited amount of time they can work before losing their benefits. And if returning to work turns out to be too much of a health burden, those with HIV can, in some cases, lose benefits entirely.

In Colorado, the number of people receiving disability payments due to HIV-related illness is relatively small. By the end of 1995--the most recent figures available--a total of 1,231 people in the state were receiving SSDI benefits because of illness due to infectious and parasitic diseases, the classification under which HIV-related illness falls. Disabled workers received an average benefit of $703.40 a month.

SSDI allows a person to work for no more than twelve months while receiving benefits--a nine-month period of work with a three-month health-evaluation period. Earning more than $200 a month counts as employment. After nine months, if a person is earning a total of $500 a month, the benefits are stopped. In Partridge's case, he is still below the maximum allowable income to be counted against his nine months of earned income because his new business has yet to produce much revenue.

Private disability insurance, however, may not offer a trial period. Depending on the policy, a disabled worker may be cut off from benefits as soon as he goes back to work, even if it's part-time. "It's kind of like having to jump off a cliff as opposed to sticking your toe in the water," says Humrickhouse.

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