Tenn. GOP lawmakers block questions on cuts to HIV funding

February 1, 2023 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Tennessee on Wednesday continued to block Democratic lawmakers from questioning the newly appointed health czar’s contentious decision to forgo nearly $9 million in federal funding designed to prevent and treat HIV.

Earlier this month, news broke that Tennessee would walk away from the funding at the end of May after state officials initially attempted to oust Planned Parenthood from the program in November amid Republican furor over the group’s long promotion of abortion access and transgender health care. Abortion is currently banned in Tennessee while Republicans are pushing to prohibit gender-affirming care to minors.

The move shocked health advocates, who argue Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s administration chose the “nuclear option” in order to avoid having to work with Planned Parenthood and other organizations that support abortion and transgender rights. They specifically point to Shelby County, which encompasses Memphis, as having one of the highest rates of HIV infections in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health Commissioner Ralph Alvarado has not answered many questions surrounding the decision, including why the state initially attempted to oust Planned Parenthood from the program.

Alvarado was appointed by Lee last fall, but didn’t take over the position until Jan. 16, just two days before the department announced it would cut off the HIV federal funding.

The commissioner was invited to speak Wednesday in front of the House Health Committee on Wednesday to introduce himself. Yet when Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons asked about the HIV funding decision, he was gaveled down by Republican Rep. Bryan Terry.

Terry reprimanded Clemmons that he had promised Alvarado that the meeting would only involve introductions.

“Don’t make me out to be a liar,” he said.

“Welcome to Tennessee,” Clemmons later said.

A similar interaction took place last week when Alvarado was asked to introduce himself in front of the Senate Health Committee. When Democratic members asked Alvarado about his decision involving the HIV funds, the Republican chairman of the panel quickly interrupted and said those questions would be addressed in March when the department presents its budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.

At both meetings, Alvarado read from a statement that his department has also distributed maintaining that “prior administrations” had decided to accept the federal funding for HIV surveillance. In a letter sent to providers, the state announced that it’s since determined “it is in the best interest of Tennesseans for the State to assume direct financial and managerial responsibility for these services.”