HIV/AIDS activists protest potential PEPFAR funding cuts at McCarthy’s office

HIV/AIDS activists protest at Speaker Kevin McCarthy's office on Sept. 11 — roughly three weeks before a key deadline to renew PEPFAR funding.
HIV/AIDS activists protest at Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s office on Sept. 11 — roughly three weeks before a key deadline to renew PEPFAR funding.
Housing Works

Seven activists with Housing Works and Health GAP were arrested on Sept. 11 while protesting outside of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s office at the Capitol to demand the reauthorization of critical HIV/AIDS funding ahead of a looming deadline that could hobble the international campaign to combat the epidemic. 

The demonstration was held just weeks before the Sept. 30 deadline to renew the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which dates back to the George W. Bush administration and has saved more than 20 million lives in places where resources are limited around the world. Activists also warned lawmakers against cutting HIV/AIDS funding within the United States after Democratic lawmakers — such as Congressmember Maxine Waters of California — warned that the House Appropriation Committee could slash $767 million in HIV/AIDS funding.

Concern has emerged that Republicans could jeopardize the program’s reauthorization — and they’re using abortion as an excuse. Activists who huddled outside of McCarthy’s office chanted “pass PEPFAR now, McCarthy!” 

“PEPFAR has saved millions of lives. It is criminal for some members of Congress to treat it as a political football,” Housing Works CEO Charles King, who was among those arrested, said in a written statement. “AIDS isn’t over until it’s over for everyone. PEPFAR has been essential to helping people in developing countries flatten the curve of HIV transmission. The United States has committed to the international goal of ending AIDS by 2030, and we cannot do that if PEPFAR is threatened.”

Housing Works serves people impacted by HIV/AIDS and homelessness, while Health GAP works to improve access to affordable medication for people living with HIV. 

A spokesperson for GOP Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told Politico earlier in the month that there is “ongoing confusion” between lawmakers regarding PEPFAR’s alleged ties to abortion funding, which is, in turn, making it “unlikely” that the program will be renewed by the deadline. 

Earlier this year, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, accused the Biden administration of using PEPFAR “to promote its domestic radical social agenda overseas.”

Representative Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, is holding up efforts to renew it, saying it would “promote abortion” — an assertion that Housing Works characterized as baseless and without evidence. Politico reported that Smith is refusing to move forward with its renewal unless President Joe Biden imposes abortion restrictions on PEPFAR funding recipients.

If the deadline passes without reauthorization, PEPFAR would continue to exist — but with limitations. As it stands, PEPFAR provides $7 billion in funding every year.

McCarthy’s office did not immediately respond to a phone call or voicemail from Gay City News on Sept. 11.

Health GAP executive director Asia Russell, who was also arrested, said House Republicans are “playing political games” with people who are the most impacted by HIV around the world. 

“Extremists in the House have sunk to a new low,” Russell said in a written statement. “Never in the twenty-year history of PEPFAR have lawmakers pulled such outrageous stunts. We demand a 5-year reauthorization of PEPFAR in its current form, and full funding for HIV treatment and prevention programs in the US.”

The five others who were arrested at the demonstration were from Housing Works, including president Matthew Bernardo; Dr. Archie Jao, the medical director of Housing Works Community Health Center; and Housing Works case manager Rosalind Casillas.

Democratic Congressmember Barbara Lee of California, an original author of PEPFAR legislation, plans to make the issue a priority when the House is back in session later in the month, according to Politico.

Fears over potential funding cuts to the program also emerged during the previous administration when the Trump administration proposed to trim PEPFAR’s budget. It was nonetheless extended.