IN A SCATHING LETTER, six members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS resigned.
“The Trump Administration has no strategy to address the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, seeks zero input from experts to formulate HIV policy, and — most concerning — pushes legislation that will harm people living with HIV and halt or reverse important gains made in the fight against this disease,” wrote Scott A. Schoettes, a former council member.
That was a year ago this month. Since then, the remaining members have been fired. None have been replaced, nor is there a director for the Office of National AIDS Policy. (Dr. Amy Lansky, who served during the Obama administration, resigned in January 2017.) This means there is no federal effort to develop policies for HIV and AIDS.
While AIDS is now viewed as a chronic, but manageable disease, continued administration inaction could have dire consequences. This is especially true among gay and bisexual men of color, among whom new HIV infections remain high.
Formed in 1995, the council advised the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. The Department of Health and Human Services says the process for finding new members is ongoing. In a statement, department officials said, “Changing the makeup of federal advisory committee members is a common occurrence during administration changes. The Obama administration dismissed the George W. Bush appointees to PACHA in order to bring in new voices.” A new council, it said, “will be convened in 2018.”
That statement was issued last year. More than six months later, PACHA seems no closer to being reconvened.
What some activists fear is a throwback to the days when a president turned his back as the epidemic ravaged communities. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration’s gross negligence of people with HIV and AIDS stifled any federal response. By the time Reagan first publicly mentioned the disease, in 1985, more than 5,000 people were already dead.
While medications are keeping people with HIV and AIDS healthy longer, there’s a reason why activists often remind us that this disease is not over. Some are concerned that the availability of PrEP, a daily pill that greatly lowers the risk of HIV transmission, is decreasing condom usage. That can fuel other sexually transmitted diseases and lead to a spike in new HIV infections if the pill is incorrectly used.
A new council could investigate this, and make policy recommendations to HHS. That’s not happening.
When Schoettes and his fellow council members resigned, he wrote, “We hope the members of Congress who have the power to affect health care reform will engage with us and other advocates in a way that the Trump Administration apparently will not.”
Given how many positions in this administration remain unfilled, the panel may become another casualty of this chaotic presidency. Without new appointments for this necessary council on HIV and AIDS, the casualties may not end there.