November 29, 2018 at 9:23 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
For World AIDS Day, Pence praises HIV programs Trump sought to cut

Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a World AIDS Day event. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

With World AIDS Day approaching, the White House recognized the occasion on Thursday with an event hosted by Vice President Mike Pence, who during his remarks praised HIV/AIDS programs Trump sought to cut during his administration.

Crediting President Trump with bringing a “renewed energy and focus” against HIV/AIDS, Pence made faith-based organizations’ work a cornerstone of his remarks, saying those efforts have made the United States “closer today than ever before to ending the AIDS crisis in our time.”

“Now, the credit for this achievement is widely shared, but faith-based organizations and faith communities like those represented here have played a preeminent role,” Pence added. “And the leaders in this room have inspired countless others to put hands and feet on their faith and bring hope and healing to literally millions of people around the world suffering with HIV/AIDS.”

Pence said the Trump administration will invest $100 million in new resources to expand our engagement with faith-based organizations and communities of faith “on the frontlines of the fight against HIV/AIDS.”

“This new investment of $100 million in faith-based organizations will increase the funding to those organizations by a full third,” Pence said. “And this will make a world of difference, we believe, in countless lives affected by this disease.”

Pence acknowledged HIV/AIDS has infected more than 77 million people worldwide and claimed no less than 35 million lives, devastating countless families and communities around the world.

“In response to this health crisis, the American people did as we always do: We mobilized the resources of the nation to fight this epidemic, not just in our own nation, in our communities, but ultimately in every corner of the world,” Pence said.

But no where during his speech did Pence mention the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS on LGBT people, even though the LGBT community has endured the brunt of the epidemic. In 2016, gay and bisexual men accounted for 67 percent of the 40,324 new HIV diagnoses in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Pence’s omission is similar to the lack of mention of LGBT people in Trump’s World AIDS Day statement last year.

Pence also touted the Ryan White CARE Act, a federal program that provides health coverage for low-income people with HIV/AIDS, asserting the program “continues to provide vital medical services to more than 1.1 million people in the United States living with HIV.”

The vice president also praised PEPFAR, a U.S. initiative that seeks to distribute antiviral drugs globally, primarily in Africa. Pence recalled his support in 2003 as U.S. House member for the program when then-President George W. Bush created the initiative.

“Thanks to the generosity of the American people and the efforts of the organizations that are so well represented here today, it’s humbling to think, in just 15 years, this American effort has helped save more than 17 million lives and prevented millions more from contracting HIV/AIDS to begin with,” Pence said. “And AIDS-related deaths have been cut in half since their peak in 2004.”

Touting the work of the Trump administration, Pence pointed out the State Department last year developed a PEPFAR Strategy for Accelerating HIV/AIDS Epidemic Control and said Trump would soon sign a bill reauthorizing the program in the aftermath of congressional approval this week.

“We’ve made great progress, but our work is far from over,” Pence said. “And as evidenced by the Congress’s action and the president’s renewed leadership, that work will continue until we end the scourge of HIV/AIDS once and for all.”

It should be noted Trump’s most recent budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 called for a drastic reduction of PEPFAR, down from $4.65 billion in FY-17 to $3.85 billion. That would have been a 17 percent reduction compared to existing funding levels. The budget request also sought a decrease of $2.26 billion in funds for the Ryan White Care Act, which is a 2 percent reduction compared to existing funding levels.

Present during the event and mentioned by Pence was Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), whom the vice president credited with supporting PEPFAR in its early stages. Earlier this year, Smith faced intense scrutiny for a Washington Blade report on his remarks at a high school event in which he suggested orphanages are better for children than same-sex parents.

Pence faced criticism for speaking out on HIV/AIDS despite his record as a U.S. House member and Indiana governor, when critics say he backed policy that enabled the spread of the disease.

For example, as a result of foot dragging on renewal of his state’s needle exchange as Indiana governor, rural Scott County in 2015 faced one of the biggest outbreaks of HIV in decades. More than 20 new cases were reported each week at the height of the outbreak.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, took to Twitter to criticize Pence’s speech as the “height of hypocrisy.”

Carl Schmid, deputy director of the AIDS Institute, thanked Pence for “recommitting our government’s goal to end HIV as a public health threat,” but also said he made important omissions.

“While we know that many parts of the federal government work day in and day out on addressing HIV in the United States, we wish he would have made mention of their work and those of the many states, cities, local organizations, and advocates that are fighting HIV throughout the U.S within the communities most impacted, including gay men, people of color and in the South,” Schmid said. “If we going to end HIV in the U.S. all communities and populations must prioritized.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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