Equality Texas wants Houston HIV funds put back

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A $600,000 grant that funds HIV screenings in Houston is unlikely to be reinstated by state health officials, despite Planned Parenthood in Houston – the group that receives the funding – being cleared of any wrong-doing.

The funds for HIV prevention – which pays for HIV and STD testing, education, counseling and condom distribution – were caught in the crossfire of a raging political debate last year involving Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. The group, which received the grant since 1988, was told in December by the Department of State Health Services that it would not renew the grant. The state agency is the pass-through for the funding, which comes from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. 

The federal funding was cut as Texas state officials retaliated against Planned Parenthood for a series of sting videos accusing the group of illegally profiting from donations of fetal tissue. A Harris County grand jury last week decided not to take any action against the group and instead indicted the two people who created the undercover videos. 

In the wake of the grand jury action, Equality Texas urged state health officials to immediately reinstate the HIV funding. 

“Equality Texas understands firsthand how the spread of malicious lies and false accusations of illegal activity can affect the public safety and public health of LGBT communities,” Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said in a press release. “Now that a Harris County grand jury has cleared Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast of all wrongdoing we are calling on the Texas Department of State Health Services to reinstate HIV/PrEP prevention funding to Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast.”

That call, though, is likely to go unheard among state leaders. Just hours after the grand jury decision was announced on Jan. 25, Gov. Greg Abbott said the state would continue to investigate Planned Parenthood.

“The Health and Human Service Commission’s Inspector General and the Attorney General’s office have an ongoing investigation into Planned Parenthood’s actions,” Abbott said in the statement. “Nothing about today’s announcement in Harris County impacts the state’s ongoing investigation. The State of Texas will continue to protect life, and I will continue to support legislation prohibiting the sale or transfer of fetal tissue.”

Attorney General Ken Paxton also made it clear: “The state’s investigation of Planned Parenthood is ongoing.”

Rochelle Tafolla, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, said the grand jury decision affirmed what the organization's leaders have maintained – that it did nothing wrong.

“It affirms 100 percent what we have said from the very beginning, and that is that Planned Parenthood follows local, state and federals laws and extremely high medical standards, and our first priority is patient care,” Tafolla said. “These individuals broke the law and committed fraud in order to spread lies about Planned Parenthood and today they’re going to be held accountable for breaking those laws.”

The annual HIV prevention grant was awarded to Planned Parenthood for 28 years and helped the group serve Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. Since 2014, the grant has funded more than 138,000 HIV tests and identified 1,182 people with HIV, according to the Texas Tribune. Harris County recorded the highest number of new HIV cases in the state, according to the Texas Observer.

Planned Parenthood has said the loss of the grant will keep the group from helping people learn their HIV status. Via the Texas Observer:

In a statement released today, PPGC CEO and president Melaney Linton called the news “devastating.”

“Our HIV Prevention Program team has tested tens of thousands of people in jails, bars, night clubs, college campuses and many other places across our service area,” she said. “The team helped people overcome their anxieties to get tested and learn their HIV status, and educated them on reducing their risk exposure.”

And the group isn't clear who will the gap since the state pulled the funding from Planned Parenthood. Via the Texas Tribune:

“I don’t know who else is going to fill that gap, and I don’t know if anyone can, frankly,” said Rochelle Tafolla, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. “Every time the state cuts these programs in an attempt to score political points … the true victims here are tens of thousands of women and men who no longer have access to health care that they need.”

Across the South, HIV rates are up to three times higher than other regions and fewer people know their HIV status, the CDC showed in a recent study. Texas sees 20.2 deaths per 1,000 people diagnosed with HIV, higher than the national average of 19.2. Also, Texas ranks near the bottom of people knowing their HIV status. 

And while HIV diagnoses among gay white men have stabilized in recent years, Latino gay and bisexual men continue to see double-digit increases in HIV diagnoses, the CDC said.

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