Tennessee health officials tried to kick Planned Parenthood out of a grant program for HIV testing and treatment before deciding to refuse the federal funds altogether, according to the Associated Press and the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
NBC News reported that the state could be rejecting as much as $10 million in HIV funds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doles out the money to states, which in turn give it to local organizations that provide services. Tennessee claims it will use state funds starting June 1, but it’s unclear how the state plans to pay for the program on its own.
Abortion is already banned in the state, so this appears to be nothing more than an attempt to financially choke off Planned Parenthood while leaving people at risk of HIV and those living with the virus as collateral damage.
Democratic state Sen. London Lamar of Memphis told the AP that refusing the money “endangers the lives of Tennesseans.” Advocates told NBC News the move is devastating. “I can’t understand why the state would give back funds targeted toward health care...it’s outrageous,” said Diane Duke, president and chief executive officer of Friends for Life, a Memphis group that provides services to people living with HIV.
The state health agency also removed Planned Parenthood’s name from a list on its website of community organizations that provide free condoms. (Planned Parenthood runs Free Condoms TN, which is still listed.)
When the AP asked the department of health why it had tried to cut Planned Parenthood out of the program in November, a spokesperson instead provided a January 17 letter explaining that “prior administrations” had accepted the federal money, but the state determined “it is in the best interest of Tennesseans for the State to assume direct financial and managerial responsibility for these services.”
Gov. Bill Lee (R) told reporters Friday: “The funding for this HIV prevention program is very important and it’s important that it is spent effectively and efficiently in the ways that best serve Tennessee. We think we can do that better than the strings attached with the federal dollars that came our way and that’s why we made that decision.” Uh-huh.
Ashley Coffield, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi was clear-eyed about the motives. “This is yet another public health crisis manufactured by Gov. Lee,” she told the AP. “They are using Planned Parenthood as the entry way to take down the whole sexual and reproductive health care system. We’re often the most public target, but this affects so many groups.”
Planned Parenthood has worked with the state to provide HIV testing since 2008 under Gov. Phil Bredesen (D). When Gov. Bill Haslam (R) was elected in 2012, his administration tried to boot the organization from the program and got sued and lost. The AP explains:
A district court later found that the department had targeted Planned Parenthood “based upon their First Amendment activity for advocating abortion” and issued a permanent injunction preventing the state from dissolving any partnership with the organization because of their abortion care advocacy. That injunction is still in place.
Why is this happening now? Possibly because the state’s new health commissioner started his job last week. Lee appointed to the role Ralph Alvarado, a former Kentucky lawmaker who is anti-abortion. Alvarado started last Monday, two days before the change was announced.
This petty move is reminiscent of when anti-abortion lawmakers in Indiana attacked various funding sources for Planned Parenthood, leading to several of its clinics to close. One shuttered clinic in rural Scott County, Indiana, had been the county’s only HIV testing center, and two years later, the county experienced a devastating HIV outbreak.
You’d think a governor wouldn’t want to repeat these mistakes, but he’s a Republican, so he doesn’t care if people get sick or die.
Update 1/26/23: The Washington Post reports that Tennessee decided to reject about $8.3 million in federal HIV prevention funds because Gov. Lee objected to previous grant recipients Planned Parenthood and a task force dedicated to transgender health issues. The program used to prioritize men who have sex with men and transgender people, particularly in communities of color, but now that the state would only use its own funds, it would “focus on first responders, victims of human trafficking and mothers and children.” One infectious disease physician called the move “a coordinated effort in order to try to dehumanize and stigmatize the LGBT community.”