‘You’re fired!’ – Presidential AIDS advisory panel, in place since 1995, dismissed

Trump obliterates AIDS advisory council

“All things AIDS, nationally and internationally, are in danger from the Trump administration, from PACHA to PrEP funding and other services right here in Baltimore,” says Lynda Dee, president of AIDS Action Baltimore, a non-profit group marking its 30th year providing essential services to people with HIV / AIDS.

“PACHA” is the acronym for the Presidents Advisory Council on HIV / AIDS, created in 1995 to advise the president on policies related to the treatment and prevention of HIV, and to make recommendations on the National HIV / AIDS Strategy, a five-year plan responding to the epidemic. Over the years, the volunteer council was made up of doctors, industry leaders, activists, and people living with the disease.

Last December 27th, the president fired all 16 remaining members of the council, effective immediately, through a form letter sent out by FedEx, with no warning or explanation. It is sometimes expected that presidents will put their own stamp on such councils by replacing members, though not so late into their terms. While the remaining members were appointed by Obama, several had time left in their terms, and others had even been sworn back in to new terms under Trump. The firing was especially offensive considering the president signed an executive order in September to renew PACHA.

In in the meantime, an estimated 1.2 million people have HIV / AIDS in the US, with the brunt of the epidemic hitting the African-American community and, especially, black transgender women and young black, gay men, the demographic where most new HIV infections are occurring.

Kaye Hayes, a council staff member, characterized the firings as routine, citing previous examples of presidents who had replaced all the council members when they were elected. When asked about it recently, White House secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that “We’re looking at the different options, and we’ll keep you posted if we have an announcement on that front.”

The first sign of apparent presidential indifference was on January 20th, Inauguration Day for President Trump, when the Office of National AIDS Policy website was taken down, leaving no mention of people living with HIV anywhere on the government website. This was followed by the failure of the administration to appoint a new director of the Office for National AIDS Policy, a position that remains unfilled today for the first time since the office was created by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

This past June, six members of PACHA resigned because of “a president who simply does not care,” as one member wrote in a Newsweek op-ed. “We cannot ignore the many signs that the Trump administration does not take the on-going epidemic or the needs of people living with HIV seriously,” wrote Scott Schoettes, the openly HIV- positive HIV project director for Lambda Legal.

Schoettes said that advisers on PACHA had suspected the president’s “lack of understanding or concern” for HIV / AIDS issues during the campaign, but had decided to stick around in hope of making change from within the administration. By June they had seen the writing on the wall, and it was clear to them that the administration had absolutely no plan or desire to address the epidemic, or to support those infected and affected by HIV.

The president’s 2018 budget would have included major cuts to HIV / AIDS policy, including $150 million in HIV / AIDS programming at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and $1 billion in global aid to fight the epidemic. Congress however, voted to continue spending at current levels.

The president read out proclamations on both National HIV Testing Day and World AIDS Day, but neither statement included any mention of the LGBT community. In December, he was also quoted as saying that Haitians entering the US “all have AIDS.” Additionally, the CDC was given a directive that their budget proposals were no longer allowed to include words like “diversity” and “transgender,” as well as “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.” These bans could affect the ability of the CDC to support communities disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic.

The deadline for reapplying or nominating new members was only one week following the firings, on January 2nd.

“We all need to remain aware and stay engaged,” said Lynda Dee. “Silence still equals death.”