December 11, 2018 at 7:57 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Trump’s HHS secretary recognizes gays in HIV/AIDS speech

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar II recognized gays in a speech about HIV/AIDS. (Photo public domain)

Secretary of Health & Human Services Alex Azar recognized on Tuesday the impact the HIV/AIDS epidemic has had on gay people and racial minorities in a speech in which he also named new co-chairs to fill longtime vacancies on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

In remarks at the Ryan White Conference on HIV Care & Treatment in Oxon Hill, Md., Azar made the reference to the impact of HIV/AIDS on the gay community when he urged his audience to combat the disease “not just as a biomedical issue, but as a social challenge, too.”

“No one suffering from a disease should ever be made to feel that it is a moral failing — but choosing to stigmatize those who suffer certainly is,” Azar said. “We also know stigma can be an even greater challenge when it intersects with the historic marginalization of particular populations, including African-Americans, Latinos and gay men.”

Azar added to win the battle against HIV/AIDS in minority communities “we need to listen to these communities, to engage with them more deeply and learn from their experiences.

The reference to the impact HIV/AIDS has had on gay people contrasts with Trump administration statements that omit its disproportionate impact on the LGBT community — a common source of criticism from LGBT rights advocates. No mention of the disease’s impact on the LGBT community was found in statements on National HIV Testing Day and World AIDS Day, nor in Vice President Mike Pence’s recent remarks on World AIDS Day.

Nonetheless, HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately affect gay people to this day. 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.

Azar also said during his remarks new HIV infections are disproportionately concentrated in certain areas in the United States, noting more than half occur in just 45 counties plus D.C. and remains high especially in the South.

To address prevention and treatment gaps, Azar announced during his speech the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases will “soon make new supplemental funding available for research collaborations across the southeast between public health departments, community organizations, and the Centers for AIDS Research that we already support.”

“The focus will be on improving the implementation of the tools we already have for HIV prevention and care,” Azar said. “How, for instance, can we do a better job of ensuring that individuals receiving antiretrovirals from a Ryan White clinic are able to reliably connect their partners to a supply of PrEP?”

Azar also announced during his remarks the appointment of two co-chairs to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. The council has remained vacant during the Trump administration since President Trump in December 2017 terminated remaining members of the body via a letter, as first reported by the Washington Blade.

“Today, I am pleased to announce to all of you that we have chosen two excellent chairs for the advisory council: Carl Schmid and John Wiesman,” Azar said.

Both new co-chairs are gay men. Schmid has worked as deputy director of the AIDS Institute in the George W. Bush, Obama and Trump administrations and Wiesman is secretary of health for Washington State and credited with leading the End AIDS Washington campaign.

Schmid said in a statement he “look[s] forward to serving in this role in order to advance policies that support people living with or at risk of HIV, and work with the administration to advance their efforts to end AIDS.”

“This administration is making decisions that will impact the future of HIV in our country and around the world,” Schmid said. “I believe it is essential that we be at that table.”

Azar announced the new co-chairs days after HHS said PACHA would hold its first meeting during the Trump administration in March. At the time, the body still had no members nearly a year after Trump terminated members and six others resigned in protest over inaction from the administration on HIV/AIDS. Among the complaints of the six who resigned was Trump’s failure to appoint a White House AIDS czar.

Caitlin Oakley, spokesperson for the Department of Health & Human Services, said “information is forthcoming” in response to a Washington Blade inquiry on when additional members of PACHA will be announced.

Azar said in his remarks the PACHA members would inform the Trump administration in updating the National AIDS Strategy, which is due in 2020. In the interim, the Trump administration has adopted the Obama-era goals in combatting the disease, including the HIV/AIDS reduction goals in the LGBT community.

“Determining the best way to take advantage of these tools and close these gaps will be the focus of updating the National HIV/AIDS Strategy for 2020,” Azar said. “The new national strategy will be developed in conjunction with the National Viral Hepatitis Action Plan, which will also be updated in 2020.”

Azar also during his remarks praised the Ryan White Care Authorization Act, a federal program that provides health coverage for low-income people with HIV/AIDS and initiated during the administration of George H.W. Bush. Azar said in 2017, 86 percent of Ryan White patients are now virally suppressed.

“At a local level, the mission of the Ryan White program, and the clinics and programs it supports, is clear: Connect Americans living with HIV to the treatment and support they need to live healthy, flourishing lives,” Azar said. “Today, we have more tools, and more effective ones, for doing so than ever before.”

It should be noted President Trump’s most recent budget request calls for a modest reduction in addition to drastic cuts for PEPFAR, a global AIDS program. 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.

Despite that record, Azar closed his remarks by insisting the Trump administration is committed to fighting HIV/AIDS and “each new HIV infection is a public health failure.”

“Someday, however, in the not-too-distant future, we believe that we can begin treating it as a sentinel event — one where public health, social services and healthcare supports can be mobilized to understand how the virus is still spreading,” Azar said. “That vision is front of mind for this administration, and all of you in this room will be key players in making it a reality.”

Read Azar’s full remarks here.

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

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