Michael Van Essen

Michael Van Essen's personal history, profession, his life itself, are all tethered to HIV/AIDS; how it's acquired, how to prevent it, how to treat it and, above all, how to survive it. During the 20+ years of his HIV infection since 1985, he has learned a great deal about the specifics of living with a life threatening illness, particularly the medical and financial supports required to sustain and possibly to improve that quality of life.

He lost two partners, Michael in 1989 and Richard in 1994, to HIV/AIDS.

By 1995, he was feeling well enough from the new medications to ask Social Security about any adverse impacts to his benefit if he tried to work for a few hours a week. They not only assured him that would there be no impact, but encouraged him, so he went to work for a small computer company for five months - until he was informed that he was eating up his "Trial Work Period," one of the SSDI program's work "incentives."

Though he left work for health reasons, he was a member of the Board of Directors of the AIDS Assistance Program in Palm Springs . When many of the organization's clients asked him about what effect earnings had on Social Security benefits, he was able to offer guidance to others considering a return to the workplace and a new career path emerged for him as a benefits counselor.

After six years in the desert he moved to Los Angeles , first becoming a client, then an employee of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA). He was certified by the Social Security Administration as a Benefits Planning Assistance & Outreach Specialist. In 2007, he took a job developing a Benefits Department for Pacific Clinics, a behavioral health organization. It is his hope that what he has gleaned as a result of his personal history and experience can be used to benefit the entire community.