Re-evaluating the Affordable Care Act


If you’re in need of healthcare for the 2015 year, you have less than two months to sign up through the insurance marketplace.

If you’re feeling a little nervous, don’t be. So far 2.5 million new individuals have signed up since enrollment opened again in November.

Since the rollout of the Affordable Care Act—or Obamacare as it commonly called—last year, the number of Americans without health insurance declined by 10.3 million, according to a report from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Some of those millions have been without health insurance for some time because of various circumstances. Some never had a health plan in their life.

“I was without insurance for 10 years,” said Carly Stone, who enrolled just a few weeks ago. “It was never a huge priority in the past for me to have it. However, as I’ve gotten older and have settled down more, all I can think about is how one uninsured ER visit could put me in debt for years.”

A lot of men and women in their 20s and 30s have had the same cavalier attitude toward healthcare, which is why President Obama has tried to reach out to young adults via “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and the Zach Galifianakis web series, “Between Two Ferns” to remind them of the importance of healthcare.

In the past, most college-aged adults age out of their parents’ insurance plan, which means they’re uninsured until they find a job that offers medical benefits. Now through the ACA, children can remain on their parent’s plan until the age of 26, even if they’re married.

Lacey Berry, 26, was an early adopter to the marketplace after she was no longer eligible on her parents’ plan. She pays just $17 a month for insurance, which she said is “pretty incredible.”

Berry was not immune to the reported issues of the first enrollment period.

“The first year I applied, I had so much trouble with the website that I ended up calling the marketplace,” she said.

More than a year later, Stone reported having similar issues.

“The website is exhaustively dysfunctional,” she said. “The first snags were with actually trying to navigate through the site. Then it informed me that I wasn’t eligible for any subsidies, which made no sense.”

In the end, she found a plan for $43. It’s the first time she’s been able to afford health insurance since she was on her parents’ plan.

“I make too much money to be approved for Medicaid, but not enough to afford health insurance. It has been a struggle indeed,” she said of the decade without a healthcare plan.

Berry suggests signing up over the phone, which can take about 30 minutes.

“I was very happy with the ease of the transaction that I did it again this year,” she said. “The customer service reps are friendly and make the process pretty painless.”

Navigating the system
Both Stone and Berry agree that a little help goes a long way. From the marketplace helpline, to healthcare representatives that visit your work, there’s someone available to answer your questions.

You could also go the route of a navigator.

Cory Brown, program manager of stability services and benefits at 90Works, helps families and individuals enroll for high-quality plans as a licensed navigator.

“Customers we have assisted range from households with no income and households that have income. We also assist small businesses with their employees’ health insurance needs,” Brown said.

Assistance can be done at the 90Works office or offsite. And better yet, the service is free.

90Works is a non-profit that works with families to overcome homelessness, poverty and family violence and have always assisted its clients with enrolling for Florida KidCare and Medicaid before assisting people with enrolling through the ACA last year.

“Making a choice for an insurance plan can be very overwhelming to someone who is unfamiliar with health insurance,” Brown said. “Navigators are able to answer many of their questions and concerns and explain their options.”

The navigators can also help with the application process, explaining eligibility results and offer advice in choosing a plan that best fits their client’s healthcare needs. The whole process takes about an hour—just one lunch break.

The kind of clients who come in to the 90Works office are from all walks of life, and most end up leaving the office pleased with their results, Brown said.

The caution sign
Of the clients seen at 90Works, several have lost health insurance after reduced work hours. Some fall below the federal poverty level, but still do not meet the qualifications for Medicaid.

“These individuals fall into the ‘Medicaid gap’ because of Florida not expanding Medicaid,” Brown explained.

In the United States, about 4 million uninsured adults remain so without the expansion. In Florida, about 800,000 individuals are in that gray area.

Under the ACA, Florida could offer Medicaid to Florida residents with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level—$27,310 for a family of three. Instead the annual income eligibility is set for a maximum of $6,930 for a family of three.

Despite the numbers, Florida leaders have voted not to expand Medicaid for the past two years. These uninsured people are left to visit free clinics, pay high out-of-pocket costs or leave their medical bills delinquent. In the last 90 days, the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County, which offers clinical services to women and children as well as dental services, had more than 1,300 visits.

Oftentimes people just ignore their health needs.

The marketplace plans do provide peace of mind for the relatively healthy, but for individuals like Sarah Humlie, it didn’t quite meet all needs.

Humlie does not have medical benefits through her job at a local non-profit, which doesn’t have the funds to support healthcare. If same-sex marriage were legal in the state of Florida, she could join her wife’s insurance plan.

Humlie took to the healthcare marketplace in search for a plan when enrollment first opened up.

“I had to have some kind of coverage,” she said.

As a healthy 32-year-old woman, Humlie was not prepared for the issues she started facing this year. Earlier this month, she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. Even with her insurance, she has spent thousands of dollars in doctor visits and surgeries.

When she signs up for 2015 coverage, she said she’ll be looking at plans that cover more, but they may come with a higher price tag.

When it comes to enrolling yourself or your family, healthcare veterans Berry and Stone advise to do your research and don’t procrastinate.

“Take a look at plans you’ve had in the past and figure out what your preferences are in terms of deductible, out-of-pocket expenses and copay,” Berry said.

And don’t forget of the lifeline available at 90Works.

“90Works has a long history of helping the medically uninsured get insured and have access to quality health care,” said Cate Jordan, the organization’s executive director in a recent press release. “We are looking forward to functioning as the expert for advocacy and education for the community’s health insurance needs in Northwest Florida.”

Contact 90Works at 855-909-6757 ext. 5 to get connected with a health insurance navigator. Think you can go it alone? Sign up today at The deadline is Feb. 15.

As seen in Independent News 

10 Things You Might Not Know About “The Nutcracker”


Admit it, when the holiday season rolls around, you go to sleep with sugar plum fairies dancing in your head.

Luckily, you don’t have to go on imagining “The Nutcracker” since Ballet Pensacola’s performance of the Christmas classic is right around the corner. Friends and family attend the ballet as part of their annual holiday traditions, making it one of the company’s most well-attended performances.

After 122 years since “The Nutcracker” first debuted—and countless performances around the world—there’s still some interesting facts even a die-hard fan might miss. Before you head to the Saenger this weekend to see Clara dance with the Nutcracker Prince, see how much you know about the holiday tale.

● When “The Nutcracker” first debuted on Dec. 18, 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the ballet was met with mixed reviews. Even the ballet’s composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, didn’t like his score. (He was also behind the music of “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty.”) Tchaikovsky died in 1893 and never got to see the ballet become the beloved classic it is today.

● The first performance of “The Nutcracker” in the United States wasn’t until 1940 when the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo performed a shortened version of “The Nutcracker” in New York City. A full performance came in 1944 by the San Francisco Ballet.

● More than 100 performers dance in Ballet Pensacola’s “The Nutcracker.” The talent is hailed from the professional company, as well as the academy. Some of the youngest dancers are just 6 years old.

● Ballet Pensacola Artistic Director Richard Steinert’s rendition of “The Nutcracker” has been in the national repertoire for more than 25 years.

● In the first performance of “The Nutcracker” in 1892, the parts of Clara and The Nutcracker Prince were played by children, which was not well-received. In later years, the parts were given to adults.

● While Tchaikovsky didn’t appreciate his “Nutcracker” score, he did enjoy using the celesta, a piano hybrid the composer found in Paris. That twinkling you hear during “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”? That’s the celesta. The ballet popularized the instrument.

● Ballet Pensacola begins preparing and holding auditions for “The Nutcracker” in September. Closer to the performance, most dancers will put in as much as 40 hours a week practicing.

● It wasn’t until 1954 that “The Nutcracker” became the holiday tradition it’s known as today. Choreographer George Balanchine staged his own version of the ballet in New York, which used the best parts of the original production along with a few twists including new characters. His production was broadcasted twice on network television.

● In the 1993 film production of “The Nutcracker,” a young Macaulay Culkin played The Nutcracker Prince, proving the role has been filled by a wide range of talent.

● Ever wonder what the deal with nutcrackers is? According to German folklore, nutcrackers are given as symbols to bring luck to your family and home. The wooden figure wards off evil and is a messenger of good luck and goodwill.

As seen in Independent News 

Waiting to Wed: Local same-sex couples look to Jan. 6


This time last year, Timothy Stark and Joey McCoy got engaged before a concert in Birmingham, Ala. They met while working together in Destin and will celebrate two years of dating this weekend.

“It’s exciting — we’re looking at buying a house and building a life together,” McCoy said.

However, what comes after the engagement for same-sex couples like Timothy and Joey is more complicated since Florida banned same-sex marriage in 2008.

But McCoy believes the new year brings new hope.

On Dec. 3, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Florida’s stay to rule on same-sex marriage. Since then, Attorney General Pam Bondi has been tight-lipped on whether she will seek to overturn the decision.

“We’re reviewing the ruling,” she said recently after a Cabinet meeting.

If the stay expires Jan. 5, same-sex couples could be able to obtain marriage licenses the next day.

For couples like Lee and Allen Padgett, who sought federal benefits by legally marrying in San Francisco, the ruling means the Destin couple — as well as others — can obtain state rights.

“I hope this is the last straw and Jan. 5 comes and goes with no more delays,” said Lee Padgett. “It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money to keep trying to postpone the inevitable.”

Advocating for change

As an adult, Doug Landreth came to be a gay-rights advocate after growing up in the closet in a small Tennessee town.

In the 1990s, he co-founded CoastalPRIDE in Fort Walton Beach. In 2008, he was one of the 100-plus members of the LGBT community rallying against Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage. The protest efforts formed Gay Grassroots of Northwest Florida.

In the past couple of years, Landreth has witnessed a rapid shift in public opinion. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, the Boy Scouts of America opened its memberships to gay youth and a domestic partnership registry was created in Pensacola.

“There’s a whole new generation of youth who have the landscape to dream,” he said. “When I was younger, getting married wasn’t a priority.”

As the regional director of ACLU of Florida, Sara Latshaw has been the voice for local Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) youth serving all of North Florida.

Since taking the job in 2012, Latshaw has worked with Niceville High School’s formation of a Gay Straight Alliance club, one of threein local high schools.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve really focused on the Panhandle,” Latshaw said. “When we started, there was already good work being done, but the pushback was tangible. There’s definitely a lot more to overcome, but change is happening.”

Creating families

Inside her Navarre home, Karissa Arnette is baking molasses cookies — a family recipe — while her 2-year-old daughter Ruby is napping. Her wife, Cynthia Clefisch, an active-duty engineer in the Air Force, is deployed overseas.

The scene is pretty typical for the stay-at-home mom, but it’s one Arnette didn’t always envision. It was only last year that the military recognized her as a military spouse after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.

“These things didn‘t seem like a possibility,” she said. “I remember watching Admiral (Michael) Mullen and Robert Gates testify for the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ on CSPAN and just crying because I was so excited.

“Have you ever had something so small — a line item — so directly affect your life?”

The couple met in the military 13 years ago. With the difficulty of juggling two active-duty schedules, Arnette ended up separating from the Air Force after six years.

When the two decided to start a family, they also decided to get married.

“We didn’t want to live a dishonest life in front of our child,” Arnette said.

So they headed to New York City in 2011 for their wedding. Clefisch was six months’ pregnant with Ruby.

From growing up in the South to serving in the military, Arnette has spent most of her life hiding. She doesn’t feel that way anymore.

“I’ve come to a point where this is who I am and I finally stopped caring what people think,” she said.

Looking forward

Growing up in DeFuniak Springs, 28-year-old Marc Gipson came out to his conservative Baptist family in an email after high school.

“I didn’t have the courage to do it face-to-face,” he said. “I was just terrified of being rejected by everyone around me.”

However, Gipson counts himself as one of the “lucky few” who received support from his family after coming out.

Back then, getting married wasn’t even on his radar, but now, he’s excited to have the option.

“I definitely want to get married one day and I don’t want to have to leave Florida,” he said.

But getting married may not stop the hurtful words or long stares.

“Will people flinch or look surprised when I reference my husband? I’m not sure,” McCoy said. “Maybe when it’s no longer a taboo subject, people can focus on the normal things we do — we take turns doing household chores, we go out to dinner, we work hard at our jobs and we love our family.”

License to wed

Local courts are already planning for the Jan. 5 decision, but are still unsure on logistics.

“We’re waiting for a form to be designed, which we hope to get soon. We like to plan ahead,” said Don Spencer, clerk of court for Santa Rosa County. “And when it becomes law, we will issue the license.”

Okaloosa County Clerk of Court J.D. Peacock said he and his staff are in a holding pattern.

“We’re sitting back and waiting to see what the status of the legal challenges will be,” he said. “We’re going to follow the settled law.”

In Walton County, William Pennington, financial director for clerk of courts, said their office is also working with Florida Bureau of Vital Statistics and legal counsel to make sure the decision is clearly understood.

Pastor: ‘I can disagree with their choice and still love them’

Jeremy Gates, senior pastor of Wright Baptist Church, refers to himself as pro-marriage.

“My belief is that marriage is one man and one woman,” he said. “My conviction is really pro-marriage. Calling same-sex marriage a civil union. … that’s another discussion.”

As Florida seems poised to become the 36th state to legally marry same-sex couples, Gates said he believes the change is a “step in the wrong direction” for the state and America.

With a Ph.D. in clinical Christian counseling, Gates has worked with many kids and families and says children often do not thrive outside the Christian family model — mother, father and kids. But Gates does not agree with the anti-gay stance of some who oppose same-sex marriage. In fact, Gates said he has gay friends and family members.

“I can disagree with their choice and still love them,” he said.

“I do not believe that the answer is name-calling or Christians picketing. The solution is love. Love wins.”

As seen in Northwest Florida Daily News

Fall into the Rabbit Hole


Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the story of a little girl, wide-smiling cats, tea parties and a manic queen — otherwise known as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

Not only is it the perfect time to dig up your copy of the book, or watch one of the movie adaptations, but you can also immerse yourself in Wonderland by visiting Pensacola Museum of Art and checking out “The Alice in Wonderland Series.”

British figurative painter and professor at Savannah College of Art & Design, Stefani Joseph, has brought the Lewis Carroll tale to life in her new exhibit.

Joseph began the Alice paintings after 16 years of working on a series that referenced deception, mystery and ambiguity.

“After these series, I wanted a change, a slightly new direction and suddenly I just thought of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” she said.

A passage from the book inspired Joseph so much she put it in her artist statement:

“But when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waist-coat pocket and looked at it and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat pocket or take a watch out of it.”

The quote brought out a playfulness in the artist, which she incorporated into the paintings.

“I could continue the themes explored in my earlier works which relied on a more traditional and realistic approach, but now I could let my imagination have full reign,” she said. “I was no longer bound with perspective, proportion etc.  Imagination, color and the pure joy of painting could come to the fore.”

No matter where it stems from, imagination is the ultimate key to any painting, Joseph said.

“For if there is no imagination, what can a painting be about? An imitation of what the eye can see, or a visual world of memory, of childhood and of characters that are so visually exciting they stay in our memory for many years to come.”

At PMA, that playfulness slips into the exhibit with a Wonderland-themed photo booth and a selection of vintage videos that will be playing in the children’s area to enhance the experience. This kind of interaction may help broaden the gap between regular museum visitors and newbies, said Alexis Leader, curator at PMA.

“Familiar subject matter, such as a timeless children’s story or identifiable imagery can ease this transition and introduce them to the arts in a creative space unburdened with a sea of terminology or artistic style references necessary to appreciate the work,” she said. “Joseph’s series is delight for visitors of all ages and its nonsensical fall through the rabbit hole as you walk from gallery to gallery leads through nearly 30 vibrant canvases of characters you know and ones you have yet to discover.”

Joseph admits she wasn’t always inspired by Alice or Wonderland, but had always been fond of the White Rabbit, who appears in one of her favorite pieces in the exhibit. When she first began painting 30 years ago Joseph was initially drawn to figurative tradition.

“I was born and lived in Europe for much of my life,” she explained. “I studied in the figurative tradition and never felt the need or desire to work in anything else.”

It’s quite a shift from representational art to paintings inspired by what is categorized as “literary nonsense.” Instead of painting from real objects, Joseph created the colorful scenes based on her creativity.

“I knew about the tea party, the Cheshire cat, the Garden of the Red Queen — and her conspiratorial character — and I then made my own scenes from imagination,” Joseph said. “Though, of course, subconsciously you never know what remembered images of the past filter through.”

From the original drawings inside the first edition in 1865, to the comic books and then, Disney movies, it’s hard for artists not to be inspired by the children’s classic.

“Carroll’s story of Alice has been adapted by artists for generations, from surrealists such as Max Ernst and Salvador Dali through pop and conceptual artists of the 1960s and 70s to contemporary artists, such as Joseph today,” Leader said.

There isn’t a huge takeaway message from Joseph’s “Alice in Wonderland Series” — there’s already a book for that. What the artist appreciates most is for people to enjoy themselves, which makes the exhibit a great choice to take restless holiday visitors.

“What I want people to take away from the exhibit is to enjoy the color, vitality and originality of the work,” she said. “With the holiday season, is this so wrong?”

As seen in Independent News 

A Book about the Bridge


Like so many others, photographer Rachael Pongetti has always been fascinated by Pensacola’s most colorful landmark—the graffiti bridge—since moving to the area permanently in 2005.

When a friend first gave her the idea to do a photography project about the bridge, the Savannah College of Art and Design alumnus wasn’t immediately convinced. But the constantly changing graffiti made her revisit the idea to create a book about the bridge.

In 2011, she decided to photograph the bridge every day throughout the year. Not always at the same time, but from the same spot and with the same camera, her Nikon D90.

To get the book done in time for her upcoming exhibit in April 2015, Pongetti is calling on the community that helped make the graffiti bridge what it is today to contribute to the finalization of the book. Keep an eye out for a Kickstarter campaign, which will go live Dec. 18, or stop by Hot Glass Cold Brew this Friday and donate in person.

The IN caught up with the artist to discuss the project and what it has meant to her.

IN: How long have you been a photographer?
Pongetti: I went to college to be an elementary school teacher. On my teacher application, I was asked if I could be anything in the world, what would it be? I put a photographer. Soon after that I got my first camera at the age of 22. I took my first photo class at 25. I took another, then another and so on. I just kept following my heart. I eventually got a Masters of Fine Arts in photography. It was a slow process, but nothing ever interested me like photography did. It just swept me away.

IN: What sparked the graffiti bridge project?
Pongetti: A friend of mine, Burton Ritchie, gave me the idea. He thought it would be a good 365-day project. I thought so too, but not for me. I was really involved in the layered, water photography I was doing at the time. He mentioned it again several months later. He said, “You know, it changes every day!” That statement is what hooked me. I had gone through a tremendous amount of change in my life, and it really took its toll on me. I began reading a lot of eastern philosophy on change. I knew I had to learn to accept change as a part of life if in order to be more at peace. When I learned the bridge changed daily, I became interested in photographing it.

IN: As a Pensacola resident since 2005, what does the graffiti bridge means to you?
Pongetti: The graffiti bridge is an unedited voice for the community. It is a platform for all people to share their thoughts, dreams and sorrows. Not many communities can claim to have that. It is a very special place and we are fortunate to have it here. It belongs to everyone!

IN: How did you go about photographing the bridge?
Pongetti: I photographed the bridge in 2011 for 365 days. I still photograph the bridge, just not every day. It takes time to create a book of quality. I didn’t just want to put something together overnight. I wanted the book and project to showcase Pensacola and the arts in a positive light. I did not photograph it at the same time every day, but I did place my camera in the same spot. Some days I would be there only 15 minutes but more often than not, I was there for an hour or more. I was always curious, always exploring. As the project continued, I did add more “spots” that I photographed every day. I photographed the bay every day and in the middle of the road.

IN: Do you have any favorite moments from executing the project?
Pongetti: The most memorable moments for me involved meeting the friends and family of the departed. I was always touched by the messages left. Art is amazing that way, it can really be a vehicle to healing. It’s a tool anyone can use.

IN: Did the project make you look at Pensacola any differently?
Pongetti: This project was about observing and accepting change. However, I have been introduced to so many people along the way. The project is now about telling the story of the bridge, telling Pensacola’s story. I love this community, and people are always sharing their story with me. Everybody has a story about that bridge. It is a real honor to listen to them.

IN: Why are you bringing the project to Kickstarter?
Pongetti: Kickstarter is a good vehicle for the arts. I felt it was the best fit for this project. If I don’t raise the money in the next month, the book won’t be ready in time for my exhibition in April of 2015. The community will be the one that brings the book to life. I love the beauty of that.

IN: Is there any message you hope people will take away from it?
Pongetti: [Quotes the poet Ovid] “All things change, nothing is extinguished. There is nothing in the whole world which is permanent. Everything flows onward; all things are brought into being with a changing nature; the ages themselves glide by in constant movement.” If you have an idea that is true to you, go for it. I didn’t have any fancy equipment (one lens, one tripod, one camera that was given to me), and I’m not the best photographer or the most technical. That is not what this project is about. I needed to learn to accept change. I process life through the visual world. Life spoke to me through the messages the community left. Pensacola gave me my peace. It would be great if the project sparked more interest in Pensacola and public art. Art benefits all people whether they have that awareness or not.

For more information on The Pensacola Graffiti Bridge Project visit

As seen in Independent News 

‘Getting to Zero’


Michael Jones is one of the 1,219 people living with HIV in Escambia County.

This March will mark 11 years since Jones was first diagnosed. Just one month prior, he was out with his friends for his birthday. He got drunk and had a one night stand—it was the one and only time he had sex that year.

“I’m the poster child for the saying, ‘It only takes one time,’” he said.

Weeks later, feeling flu-like symptoms, he went to take an HIV test.

“I got the results back, but I pretty much already knew,” he said. “Without researching about the infection, I thought my life was over. I was devastated.”

It wasn’t a quick, overnight epiphany, but Jones did learn to accept his HIV status. Two years after his diagnosis, he started to take medications and learned that life with HIV is pretty normal. He even became an advocate for HIV prevention, volunteering his time at charities in Pensacola and sharing his story with local news outlets for the purpose of education.

“If I can get through to one person, I’ve done my part,” he said.

Spreading the word
Jones remembers the AIDS scare of the ‘80s and ‘90s. As a young, gay man hiding in the closet, he was frightened and didn’t have many resources to become more informed.

“I was scared to death,” he said. “I was so far in the closet—I didn’t have anyone to talk to. And it was such a taboo thing.”

Fast forward more than 20 years and it’s still not as openly discussed as it should be.

“Twenty-five percent of the country’s population still thinks you can contract HIV from drinking after someone,” Jones said.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six of the more than one million people in the U.S. living with HIV are unaware of the infection, which makes testing and safe sex practices all the more important.

When it comes to preventing the spread of HIV, it’s all about comprehensive sex education.

“There’s still a lot of stigma,” said Kimberly Brill, outreach coordinator at HIVevolution. “People don’t want to be seen inside. We need to combat that shame. Almost everybody is sexually active, so there needs to be some sort of dialogue. It can’t be all about abstinence. Education has to be realistic.”

Three years ago, HIVevolution was created to provide the local area with free, confidential HIV testing, as well as education about preventing and living with the infection. The organization also provides referrals to other agencies to follow through with care.

The Florida Department of Health in Escambia County is another resource for education, as well as medical and support services through the Ryan White Care Act to income-qualifying HIV individuals.

“HIV infection is preventable,” said Marie Mott of FDOH in Escambia County. “Through prevention education and the appropriate use of post-exposure and pre-exposure prophylaxis, we can reduce the incidence of new HIV infections. Most of our prevention activities, such as testing through our volunteer test sites and condom distribution, are free to the public.”

Living positively
Today, people can live healthy, normal lives with HIV. That’s thanks to antiretroviral therapy medications that keep the level of HIV in your body low and help lower the risk of transmitting HIV to others.

“HIV is not what it used to be. It’s certainly not a death sentence,” Jones said. “My energy levels can get pretty low, but that can be from getting old, too.”

These medications come with a cost. Jones’ meds cost $2,200 a month. He found help through Lutheran Services, which is how he eventually came to know HIVevolution, where he volunteered by talking with people who were waiting to get tested and trying to put them at ease.

Two years ago, Jones started volunteering with A Safe Port Counseling Center, which offers grief counseling for the LGBT and HIV/AIDS communities.

While medications help reduce the likelihood of HIV progressing to AIDS, it can still happen. Of the 1,219 people in Escambia County living with HIV, 684 — 56 percent — have a diagnosis of AIDS. According to the CDC more that 15,000 still die of AIDS related issues each year in the U.S.

“Since mandatory reporting of HIV/AIDS cases began in 1997, we have seen a steady increase in the number of people becoming infected with HIV on both a national and local level,” Mott said. “Within the last year, we have seen a slight decrease in the incidence of AIDS diagnoses, indicating that HIV treatments are effectively managing infection.”

Part of HIVevolution’s mission is to make HIV testing part of normal health maintenance. “Like getting your teeth cleaned,” Brill said.

The earlier you get treatment, the better the outcome, Mott adds.

“Evidence supports the importance of HIV testing as a part of routine health care and for those individuals who are positive, the importance of initiating and maintaining medical care,” she said.

Jones has not let HIV deter him from achieving life goals, like earning a bachelor’s degree.

However, finding a partner has proven to be difficult.

“I haven’t had much luck,” he admitted. “It tends to be a conversation ender. But I’m waiting for Mr. Perfect, I’m not gonna settle.”

On Dec. 1, the Pensacola community will gather to raise awareness, to remember and to hope for a better future for those living with HIV.

The first ever World AIDS Day was held in 1988 and has continued to be a worldwide event every year. This year’s theme is “Getting to Zero,” with the goal to decrease the number of new infections through prevention and education.

The program will be held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza and will include keynote speaker Susan Walch, from the department of psychology at University of West Florida. Following her speech will be a candlelight walk and then a reception in the courtyard at Sole Inn and Suites.

World AIDS Day isn’t just for those infected with HIV. It’s for the friends and family who have supported their loved ones through the illness.

“I remember watching a newscast about the pandemic of AIDS in the ‘80s,” Brill said. “I was 12 at the time. Throughout my life, I’ve known people who have HIV and have known people who passed away from complications from AIDS. It’s important to pay respect to those loved ones.”

Everyone is encouraged to participate in World AIDS Day by walking in the candlelight, getting tested or just taking the time to educate yourself.

“It’s so easily preventable with common sense,” Jones said. “It’s about time we stop the spread.”

WHEN: 6 p.m. Dec. 1
WHERE: Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza, downtown Pensacola
COST: Free

● HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus
● AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome
● AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection, but not everyone with HIV advances to this stage.
● HIV is NOT spread by air, water, drinking fountains, toilet seats, saliva, tears or sweat
● HIV can be spread by certain bodily fluids such as blood, semen, pre-seminal fluids, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids and breast milk
● Anal sex is the highest-risk behavior, followed by vaginal sex and sharing needles or syringes used to prepare injection drugs.
Facts from

“If someone believes they have recently been exposed to HIV through sexual assault or condom failure, they can go to their primary care doctor or hospital emergency room and request HIV post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP),” explained Marie Mott of the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County.  “PEP involves taking anti-HIV medications as soon as possible after exposure (ideally within 36 hours) to try to reduce the chance of becoming HIV positive. For other individuals, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) may be an appropriate prevention measure. PrEP uses a specific medication to reduce incidence of infection in individuals at higher risk for HIV exposure.”

Northwest Florida AIDS/HIV Consortium—
Florida Department of Health in Escambia County—

As seen in Independent News 

Winter Eats: All The Southern Ladles


When Southern Ladle owner and chef, Christy Couch, makes soup, it’s a family affair.

“I absolutely love cooking,” she said. “My motherly instincts emerge and I care and love each and every soup as if it were my own flesh and blood.”

As the cooler temperature emerges, it’s almost habitual to crave a warm bowl of soup.

“I constantly find my palette changes, elevates and sometimes returns back its roots,” Couch said of her own seasonal cravings.

Now that summer is officially behind us, it’s the perfect time to try one of Couch’s weekly liquid creations—she also creates artisanal salads.

And quite possibly the best part is, you don’t even have to get out of your comfy sweat pants. You can get your soup delivered to you. On a chilly day, Couch suggests classic, French onion soup with gruyere croutons.

“I’m a purist at heart and am always reminded of my childhood every time I find myself longing to cook this or devour it out somewhere,” she said.

When venturing into the kitchen to try making your own homemade soups, Couch recommends paying close attention to the broth.

“I tend to become obsessive with the broth development,” she said. “Layering flavors is so important when properly making soup.”

“Once you have a good base to work with, the rest of the soup is easy and really only enhances what you created,” she said. “I tent to lean more on the broth-y side than cream-based, but everyone is different.”

If you didn’t notice, Couch’s devotion to soup is well beyond inclement weather and past memories.

“I will even eat hot, hearty soups in the dead of summer,” she said. “I am a crazy soup addict. No buts about it.”

To order Southern Ladle soups and to check out the weekly menu, contact Christy Couch at 380-7717 or Like the page at

As seen in Independent News