As one of Central Texas’ oldest and largest AIDS Service Organizations, we at AIDS Services of Austin are troubled by the recent legislative decision to cut funding to HIV programs in favor of higher spending on abstinence-only programs. HIV prevention programs work. The decision made by our state legislators will have a life-and-death impact on the health of tens of thousands of Texans and contradicts current scientific and federal recommendations for strategically fighting HIV. Since 2004, Texas has succeeded in preventing an estimated 19,560 new HIV infections. This legislation only sends us backward.
While we don’t know yet how the cuts will impact programs, and whether local health departments or non-profits will be affected, we know that a reduction in state HIV funding directly impacts the amount of federal funds received for HIV services. For instance, Ryan White Part B federal funds cannot be used to offset budget reductions at the state level, and without state funding, Texas is at risk of receiving reduced Ryan White funds.
For those Central Texans that rely on our services daily, we can assure them that the federal funds received for ASA’s HIV prevention programs will not be impacted. However, ASA’s health insurance assistance program, which is partially funded by state funds, could be impacted, jeopardizing health insurance coverage for people living with HIV and impacting both the local health system and the well-being of the community. We know from experience that one of the best strategies against HIV is to ensure people living with HIV maintain their health and sustain reduced viral loads, thereby preventing the virus from spreading.
The long-term impacts of these budget changes will not be to increase abstinence but rather to increase the spread of HIV. In addition, our lawmakers’ rationale will not resonate with the largest majority of Texas citizens affected by HIV and AIDS: gay and bisexual men (men who have sex with men). Abstinence until marriage is not feasible for gay and bisexual men who have no option to marry in Texas, and we know that HIV disproportionately affects young gay men and people of color. In the Austin area, the highest proportion of new HIV infections is in gay men under 35.
Even for the general population, an abstinence-only approach is tantamount to teaching a child to look only one way when crossing a busy street. Just because you teach them to look both ways doesn’t mean they are going to run into a busy street. It means they may have a better chance of survival. In addition, Texas already provides the option for local jurisdictions in the education system to choose between an abstinence or safer sex curriculum. By removing funds that are critical to safer sex education, we risk undoing the tremendous accomplishments of AIDS Service Organizations and health departments throughout the state, along with a potential increase in new infections in our more vulnerable and disadvantaged populations.