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Basic HIV testing and treatment in Nashville is being threatened by an unexplained state funding cut

Each year, AIDS and HIV advocates spend a day at the Tennessee capitol informing legislators about their most pressing concerns and offering testing.
TN Aids Advocacy Network
Each year, AIDS and HIV advocates spend a day at the Tennessee capitol informing legislators about their most pressing concerns and offering testing.

Some basic testing and treatment for HIV could vanish in Nashville after the state decided to stop accepting a big grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Millions of dollars flow through the United Way of Greater Nashville to smaller local nonprofits.

A statement from Gov. Bill Lee’s office says the administration “is examining areas where it can decrease its reliance on federal funding and assume increased independence.” His office indicates the state will step in with the same funding amount but redirect money to groups that don’t necessarily target the people at highest risk. In Tennessee, most new HIV cases are among young, Black men who have sex with men.

“With the authority to responsibly steward these dollars, the state is committed to maintaining the same level of funding, while more efficiently and effectively serving vulnerable populations, such as victims of human trafficking, mothers and children, and first responders,” Lee’s spokesperson Jade Byers says in an email.

Nashville Cares has received this CDC grant money for the last 15 years to fund HIV testing in several emergency departments around the city. CEO Amna Osman recalls a 67-year-old grandmother who recently came in with a broken toe and left knowing she needed to enroll in treatment.

“She must have been living with HIV for around 17 years,” Osman says. “And she was the sole caretaker for her grandchildren. She would have never known her HIV status if it wasn’t for us being at the emergency department, and these funds made it possible.”

The CDC estimates 14% of Tennesseans with HIV don’t know their status.

Nashville Cares has been getting roughly $300,000 a year and is now exploring ways to replace the funding.

Neighborhood Health, which treats people with HIV and counsels their families, was receiving even more. The clinic’s CEO, Brian Haile, says there’s no way the city health department could take over all the patients they see. Statewide, more than 20,000 people are living with HIV.

“I think the real impact is going to be among those who don’t have access and are uninsured,” Haile says.

Patient advocates are confused because the South accounts for half of all new HIV cases, and Memphis is considered a hotspot nationally.

Democrats in the state legislature are calling the move “heartless.”

“The administration’s irresponsible decision to reject federal funding for community-based HIV/AIDS prevention endangers the lives of Tennesseans,” Sen. London Lamar, D-Memphis, said in a statement. “Our state has made steady progress against this incurable disease thanks to these exact public health efforts.”

Update: This story has been updated with a statement from the office of Gov. Bill Lee.