Washington DMV offers free HIV tests: More to come?

In this photo taken July 8, 2011, Sheila Brockington, project director of Family and Medical Counseling Service, Inc., left, and Deputy Director Angela Wood hold a swab kit outside the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office in southeast Washington. At one office of the Department of Motor Vehicles in the U.S. capital, motorists can get a driver's license, temporary road tax stickers and something wholly unrelated to the road: a free HIV test. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) AP

dmv, free HIV tests, washington d.c.
Sheila Brockington, project director of Family and Medical Counseling Service, and Deputy Director Angela Wood hold a swab kit outside the DMV office in southeast Washington D.C.
AP

(CBS/AP) Long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles are a drag. But what if a trip to the DMV saved your life?

That's the thinking in one Washington D.C. DMV office - it's offering free HIV tests.

PICTURES: HIV testing: 7 key questions

The nation's capital boasts one of the largest percentages of residents living with HIV/AIDS, which is why officials spent last year testing the program. Since it began last October, more than 5,000 people have been tested at the DMV and gotten their results while waiting.

Now the program aims to expand to other offices. Officials will provide free HIV tests at area-based food stamp offices, Medicaid offices, and government assistance offices.

When the expansion kicked off Monday, more than 60 people got tested. As an added incentive, they were offered a $5 gift card to a local grocery store.

"You have to meet people where they are," said Sheila Brockington, who oversees HIV testing at the DMV office in southeast Washington. "You're waiting anyway. You might as well."

The nonprofit group Family and Medical Counseling Service runs the program. To ensure confidentiality, tests are administered and results are given in a private office, out of earshot from other customers. The nonprofit got a $250,000 grant for the program, and now a second, similar grant is funding expansion.

About 1.1 million Americans were living with the AIDS virus in 2008, according to a recent government report, and studies show that about 10 percent to 20 percent of U.S. adults are tested annually. But those involved in HIV/AIDS work recognize that more needs to be done to identify people living with HIV, said Chris Collins, vice president and director of public policy for amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.

"We need to be looking for creative ways to reach people who haven't tested in the past," said Collins.

Not everyone in Washington was sold on the idea when it was proposed by the head of the nonprofit, Angela Wood. Some officials doubted many people would test. Now, however, between 25 and 35 people get tested every day at the DMV location.

People who test positive are offered a free ride to a nearby office where they can arrange counseling and doctor's appointments. So far, less than 1 percent of those screened have tested positive - below the city's infection rate of 3 percent.

The four people who run the testing office have their pitch down pat.

When people are on line, one of the testers approaches with the offer: free tests, money off your bill, and the promise that it won't hurt.

"We don't do blood. We do swabs," tester Karen Johnson tells patrons, explaining that the saliva test takes 20 minutes and that participants will not lose their place in line. Anyone who agrees also gets $7 off DMV services.

For patrons, the offer is generally a surprise, but not an unwelcomed one.

Bus driver Nat Jordan, 35, went to the DMV one day to get his car registered, and accepted the offer because he gets tested once a year anyway. Colleen Russell, 28, a newly married nurse who was at the DMV to change her name on her license, said she knew she was negative but got tested anyway because she comes in daily contact with patients who could be infected.

One man got tested because his wife is HIV positive. Though he's tested negative before, it reassured him to have a second one at the DMV.

Wood understands getting tested at the DMV isn't for everyone, but still warns: "It's important for you to take the test, whether you take it here or at another site."

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