Chris Timmons: Legislature must use common sense, compassion to combat HIV/AIDS

What’s with Republicans when it comes to HIV/AIDS?

President Ronald Reagan refused to recognize the reality of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s when it was mysterious and at its peak.

Gov. Rick Scott refuses to recognize the reality of the HIV/AIDS crisis today in Florida when the Federal Center for Disease Control (CDC) can give you a compendium on it.

In the 1980s, it was the dreaded “gay disease” and with the advent of the Moral Majority, Reagan was going nowhere near a public acknowledgement of its lethal virulence and its tragic toll on lives.

Today, Scott faces a less powerful religious right, and there’s some Republican enlightenment on gay questions.

Let me explain: Republicans may talk about marriage as an institution for only a man and woman by divine decree, but this is a party with a previous presidential nominee who supported civil unions (George W. Bush).

That likely is the work of both public opinion, and the Log Cabin Republicans, an LGBT organization with growing influence in the party.

HIV/AIDS is not an exclusively gay phenomenon. Straight people can acquire it, too.

But it is, overwhelmingly, an illness that gay people acquire more readily and especially black gay men.

According to the CDC, black men account for 36 percent of HIV/AIDs infections among gay men.

The problem of gay black men and reckless sex has received relentless public airing.

Whether it is on Oprah’s OWN, J.L. King’s memoir “On the Down Low,” the novels of E. Lynn Harris, DL Chronicles, the problem and its effect on black health and black women is constantly discussed as a festering public health crisis.

Since 2012, HIV infection rates have declined across the country. As always, Florida is an anomaly. It has risen here.

Florida has 3 million black people.

The rise in HIV infections is mostly in its largest counties, Miami-Dade and Broward.

In Miami-Dade, blacks are 18 percent of the population. In Broward, they are 28 percent. HIV infection cases have increased by 6,240 since 2012 and 38 percent of those new cases were in Miami-Dade and Broward.

The state Department of Health (DOH) has relentlessly cut programs and services, all part of Scott’s vision of a government run like a business.

Also, Dr. John Armstrong, secretary of the department and the state’s surgeon general, has changed the department’s focus. The department spends more time on public relations than saving lives.

See an eerie parallel to Scott’s jobs program? Good job, Sherlock.

Last year, the state’s 67 county health departments had 12,759 employees. This fiscal year, it’s down to 10,519. On top of that, Scott has requested a cut of 718 DOH jobs and 501 of them are county health department jobs.

Last year, the state DOH ended its Children’s Medical Services program, which means zilch medical coverage for 9,000 children across Florida.

The latter, along with the HIV infection crisis, has put Armstrong’s tenure under the legislative microscope.

The state Senate’s Committee on Health Policy is likely to confirm him, though it is taking its sweet time and putting heat on Armstrong to explain Florida’s real state of health.

That is necessary: In his first year as the state’s health leader, HIV cases rose by 4,512. Armstrong and his boss have remained in denial about it.

Cutting county health departments’ budgets by 26 percent (from $173 million to $126 million) over the span of this crisis is a case-in-point about Scott-Armstrong HIV denialism.

It is a fact that in a Republican-dominated Legislature bent on abstinence only, it is unlikely that a bit of policy common sense on sexually transmitted diseases, like SB 1056, would get passed.

SB 1056, or the Florida Health Adolescent Act, would make sex education available to public school students. That’s where it is most needed. Bad sex practices begin in adolescence, especially among black and poor teenagers.

It is time for the Legislature to bring the light of common sense and compassion to Florida’s dark approach to HIV/AIDs policy.

Or continue to reap the public health consequences.

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Chris Timmons is a native Floridian, columnist, and fellow with the James Madison Institute. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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