Austin lawmakers question why state cut HIV-prevention program


A dozen lawmakers, including five from Austin, have penned a letter supporting the embattled Planned Parenthood branch based in Houston after state funding for its HIV-prevention program was cut.

The Texas Department of State Health Services notified Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast on a Dec. 21 letter that it would not be extending their $618,000 annual contract. The letter didn’t provide a reason for the move and a department spokeswoman did not clarify the matter further on Thursday.

“I am very disappointed to see matters of public health being politicized not just by our statewide leaders, but by our state health officials who should put public health first,” local state Rep. Celia Israel told the American-Statesman Thursday. “Texans deserve to know why their state refused to renew a long-term contract to prevent HIV. This isn’t just embarrassing — it’s a matter of life and death.”

Israel, along with fellow Austin Democratic House members Dawnna Dukes, Donna Howard, Elliott Naishtat and Eddie Rodriguez, signed a letter asking the state health department to answer several questions — including why it defunded the program — by Friday.

The department intends to respond to the legislators’ questions, spokeswoman Carrie Williams said, but added that the series of undercover videos that emerged last year accusing Planned Parenthood of breaking the law didn’t have anything to do with the decision.

Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast operates a Houston clinic that was the subject of an undercover video shot in April. Abortion opponents said that the video showed Planned Parenthood officials violating laws against the sale of fetal body parts and against changing abortion procedures to procure intact fetal tissue.

On Monday, a Harris County grand jury cleared the organization of any wrongdoing and instead indicted two abortion opponents who were involved with shooting the undercover videos — David Daleiden, founder of the Center for Medical Progress, and Sandra Merritt — for tampering with a governmental record, a second-degree felony that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Daleiden was also indicted on a Class A misdemeanor that prohibits the purchase and sale of human organs.

The videos prompted the state in October to announce its intention to drop Planned Parenthood affiliates as Medicaid health care providers. Rochelle Tafolla, a spokeswoman for the Gulf Coast branch, said the latest notice is yet another punitive, politically motivated measure against the group.

“While these attacks are targeted at Planned Parenthood, the real victims and the people who are harmed are low-income uninsured women and men in Texas who need health care and rely on Planned Parenthood to get it,” Tafolla said.

The branch received funding for its HIV-prevention program from the state through grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Texas received $13.2 million in 2015 from the federal government and the Gulf Coast branch is the only Planned Parenthood affiliate in Texas that received such funds.

The money allowed the Gulf Coast branch to provide free HIV testing and educational outreach at bars, restaurants, jails and other areas in the community — all of which are slated to be eliminated with the loss of funding, Tafolla said. During the 28 years that the branch received the grant, more than 145,000 people had been tested, she said.

The money that would have otherwise been given to the Gulf Coast branch will be allocated to local health departments in the area, which will provide similar services, Williams said.

According to the state health department, more than 80,000 Texans are known to be living with HIV. This does not include nearly 18,000 people who are estimated to be living with HIV and unaware of their infection.


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