Mixed Record on AIDS Calls for Pointed Questioning of HHS Nominee

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As top public health official, Tommy Thompson must be committed to fighting epidemic
January 17, 2001

(NEW YORK, January 17, 2001) – Citing Tommy Thompson’s mixed record on HIV issues while governor of Wisconsin, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Wednesday that the Senate should question the Health and Human Services secretary-designate about his plans for addressing this country’s AIDS epidemic. “HHS oversees billions of dollars in services and programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, medical research, and prevention efforts. In terms of direct responsibilities, no one appointee will have more power over the lives of people with HIV and over HIV prevention than the new HHS secretary.” said Lambda AIDS Project Director Catherine A. Hanssens.

Lambda Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart said, “Federal leadership on HIV/AIDS is critically important for America’s poor, communities of color, women, teenagers, and children as well as gay men. Congress and voters should ask Thompson and the other members of the new administration for their plan for a comprehensive, national campaign to stop new infections and to care for those already infected.”

Joined by other AIDS advocates, Lambda’s call for a serious examination of Thompson’s record and his plans to address this still devastating epidemic aims to ensure an adequate federal response and to raise public consciousness about ongoing public health needs.

Despite the occasional appearance of his independent streak, it remains a question whether Thompson will have the political will to back scientifically sound – but politically controversial – prevention efforts like comprehensive education for adolescents and syringe exchange programs. It also is unclear whether he will curb the federal government’s increasingly expensive sponsorship of abstinence-only education.

Hanssens said Thompson’s past support of some new state programs – such as the expansion of Medicaid benefits for needy individuals with HIV – has put Wisconsin ahead of the curve on HIV treatment. Nonetheless, as a strong opponent of women’s reproductive freedom, Thompson’s record of neglecting sexual education and AIDS prevention raises great concerns.

“I’ve been to too many funerals to believe that withholding information is a rational way of educating adolescents about the consequences of sex. It is the lack of information that is deadly,” said Dr. Jeffrey Birnbaum, director of adolescent HIV services at SUNY Health Sciences Center in Brooklyn.

Birnbaum continued, “Abstinence programs should be part of a spectrum of services; kids need to learn about sex, and prevention of pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as the important option of abstinence.

“The new administration has to signal it sees the epidemic as we do -- the greatest public health emergency to hit communities of color in decades,” noted Dennis de León, executive director of the Latino Commission on AIDS, saying, “The Minority HIV/AIDS Initiative that was started at the urging of the Congressional Black Caucus and supported by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus must be continued and expanded,”

Added Hanssens, “The silence from the incoming administration on HIV/AIDS is deafening. It is time to acknowledge we still are fighting this disease. Even Tommy Thompson, picked to be the country’s top public health official, has avoided any serious scrutiny on this pressing national issue.”

She cautioned that Wisconsin’s reported cases of HIV and AIDS remained steady or increased among African Americans and Hispanics, yet state HIV prevention efforts stalled under Thompson’s tenure. Funding for HIV prevention has significantly lagged behind treatment funds in Wisconsin, and none is allocated to school-based AIDS education, the primary opportunity for prevention education for youth. At the same time, Wisconsin has committed $2.4 million to a five-year abstinence-only education program that does not give young people the concrete information they need.

Lambda is the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS. Founded in 1973, Lambda is headquartered in New York and has regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta.

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