In January, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced that his state would reject nearly $9 million in federal funding for HIV prevention and monitoring, which became effective on May 31.
Lee’s administration has said it will replace the federal funds with state dollars and has pledged a shift in funding priorities that would effectively move efforts for HIV prevention away from people in groups at high risk of contracting the virus, including gay men and people who inject drugs. Lee, a Republican serving his second term, has directed the Tennessee Department of Health to focus HIV prevention services on first responders, mothers and children and victims of human trafficking.
In defense of what has been an unpopular decision by many in the healthcare community and beyond, Lee said, “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 the decision.
“All of this is willful ignorance on the part of the state government,” Gregorio Millett, M.P.H., the director of public policy at amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, said in a prepared statement. “People at risk for HIV are going to suffer because of these decisions.”
Studies show that more than half of all HIV infections in the U.S., are based in the South, and Tennessee’s Shelby County, which includes Memphis, is considered an HIV hotspot, recording one of the highest rates of new HIV infections in the country.
Between 2016 and 2019, new HIV diagnoses decreased 5% across the South, and federal funding has been calculated to have prevented more than 500 HIV cases annually in Tennessee alone.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it would directly fund the HIV testing through the nonprofit United Way of Greater Nashville.
“Governor Lee’s decision to reject federal HIV epidemic funding is short-sighted and harmful,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat whose district includes Memphis, in a prepared statement. “I applaud the CDC for finding a solution to ensure that the people most at risk of contracting HIV will not lose access to important prevention services and those with HIV can receive adequate treatment.”
The CDC will now send $4 million in funding for HIV-services through the United Way, which will then disperse the federal funding to the organizations.This means the Tennessee Department of Health has been cut out of the process of distributing federal funding meant for HIV prevention, surveillance, and treatment altogether.