Tennessee rejects federal money for HIV treatment, alarming those living with HIV

Tennessee Capitol sunset
Posted at 5:50 PM, Jan 23, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It's not often that a state rejects federal funds for a project — but that's exactly what the state of Tennessee is doing when it comes to HIV prevention and treatment programs.

The Tennessee Department of Health recently made the decision to reject a CDC grant program that has helped community health organizations provide treatment for HIV-positive patients for the last 15 years. The funding stops at the end of May, and the state promises to kick off its own version of the program by the beginning of June.

No one seems to know what the state's program will look like, including the governor. Now those impacted by these medical services have no idea what to expect

It hasn't always been easy for David Michael Hawkins, an openly gay and HIV-positive musician in Nashville, who was first diagnosed 10 years ago.

"I have lost jobs. I have lost music gigs. I’ve lost television shows where I was going to be a host of it," said Hawkins.

But he is healthy, thanks to access to the medical care he might not normally be able to afford.

"Free medication, free access to mental health, free access to primary care," he said.

Amna Osman, CEO of Nashville CARES is deeply concerned by the state's decision.

"This is a decision that was not thought through, and a plan that was not very really very well planned," said Osman. "Community-based organizations have done so much work to reach people, to build trust, to engage with the most vulnerable. You can’t take those resources away and decimate community providers that don’t have other resources to do this work."

Opting out of federal funding doesn't happen often for states. Now, we're getting a better idea why.

"We think we can do that better than the strings attached with the federal dollars that came our way and that’s why we made that decision," said Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee during a media availability last week.

Those strings attached may be a reference to Planned Parenthood, an abortion care provider that often attracts controversy from conservative lawmakers.

NewsChannel 5 obtained documents from Planned Parenthood, accusing top Tennessee health officials of attempting to oust Planned Parenthood from a CDC program designed to prevent and treat HIV. When that wasn't successful, the state decided to drop the federal grant altogether.

Gov. Lee says their own version of funding will have new priorities.

"Particularly focusing on human trafficking victims, on the transmission to first responders, on the transmission from mothers to their babies. Those are populations that we want to focus on," said Lee.

But Osman is concerned about the kinds of people the governor didn't mention.

"We have, you know, communities of color, LGBTQ folk, people that — women, African American women, their rates are going up. So there is a lot of populations that we need to focus these resources," said Osman. "They're individuals that are from communities that don’t have a lot of resources, and access to care and treatment is already a challenge with social determinants of health. And now we're taking these funds away and thinking that we can really make strides and end the HIV epidemic. It doesn’t really make sense to me."

And while it hasn't always been easy for Hawkins, he's worried it's about to get that much harder for the HIV community.

"Most states around the country gladly accept it. Why wouldn’t they? And so it was just a complete shock that Tennessee would make a curve ball move," said Hawkins.

State Democrats slammed Lee's administration on this move.

"This is ill-advised, and I really hope they’ll reconsider because from both a public health and an economic standpoint, inevitably, this is going to be harmful to Tennesseeans," said Sen. Heidi Campbell of Nashville during an interview last Thursday.

The Tennessee Department of Health plans to release more on the HIV funding priorities in the weeks to come.

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