WASHINGTON — The leaders of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus are demanding answers from the White House after a mass exodus from a presidential advisory group.
Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the co-chairs of that group, delivered a letter last week to President Trump that called for the White House to back off proposed budget cuts to HIV/AIDS programs, revamp the currently blank website it scrubbed in January, and to appoint a national AIDS policy director, all after six council members jointly resigned. Those members slammed Trump for not caring about the issue in a public letter of resignation earlier this month.
A seventh member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) — Dr. Jeffrey Akman, the dean at George Washington University’s school of medicine and health sciences — also resigned recently, according to a spokesman from the Department of Health and Human Services.
“We cannot afford to take a step back,” wrote Lee and Ros-Lehtinen, longtime members of Congress whose home districts in Oakland and Miami, respectively, were hit particularly hard by the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.
Lee was more blunt in an interview with STAT, calling the administration’s health policy “callous.”
“I was hearing, quite naturally, the level of discontent [within PACHA], given this lack of a strategy, given their taking down the website, given the budget cuts,” she said.
In their resignation letter, published as an op-ed in Newsweek, the PACHA members wrote: “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.”
PACHA’s charter allows for a maximum of 25 members, but there is no membership minimum, and as long as over half of current members are present at meetings, the council can conduct business as usual.
Following the resignations, the White House pointed out that the members who resigned were Obama appointees; that Obama himself replaced much of the George W. Bush-appointed commission upon taking office; and that the former members never reached out to the White House Domestic Policy Council with their concerns.
Lee said the White House has provided the HIV/AIDS Caucus with no information since Trump took office in January, and applauded the seven ex-members for taking a stand via their resignation.
“We’re not hearing one thing” from the White House, she said. “I don’t know if they care if this is bipartisan.”
A White House spokesman also noted that the White House had appointed Katy Talento, who previously worked at the HIV/AIDS-focused Whitman-Walker Clinic, to handle the Domestic Policy Council’s health policy in January.
Trump’s proposed 2018 budget leaves largely intact the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, proposing a $59 million funding reduction out of a $2.3 billion budget, but slashes a program for HIV/AIDS prevention overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by $186 million.
HIV/AIDS advocates are more worried by a proposed $880 billion cut in planned Medicaid funding over the next decade, which they say could prove a major barrier to access to expensive anti-retroviral drugs and other treatments used by those who are HIV-positive or have AIDS.
Darrell Wheeler, the PACHA vice chair, did not respond to STAT’s multiple requests for comment.