Bipartisan Congressional Panel Urges Cross-Party Cooperation on HIV/AIDS
July 27, 2012
Global Health Research Fellow
A new generation of Congressional leaders is dedicated to ensuring continued bipartisan support for HIV/AIDS funding both globally and domestically. At an AIDS 2012 session Wednesday July 25, prominent lawmakers from both parties expressed appreciation for the collaborative history of PEPFAR and said the program is a priority for them.
“I am committed to ensuring this is an issue we remain focused on in a bipartisan way and not allowing this issue to become politicized,” said first term Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio. He added, “This is something the country should be proud of.”
Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) moderated the panel. An architect of the legislation creating PEPFAR, he said that while the effort had been an enormous success, budget constraints and political divisiveness in Washington could threaten its future. “We have a huge responsibility…to move ahead,” Frist said. The view was echoed by panel participants including veteran lawmakers Barbara Lee, a Democratic House member from California, and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and newcomers Rubio and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who was elected in 2010. In addition to fulfilling a humanitarian obligation, panelists said, PEPFAR serves broader U.S. interests by improving America’s image abroad and enhancing the stability of African countries. “As much as any nation on earth, America is not immune to things that are happening around the planet and that includes disease and that includes, of course, AIDS,” Rubio said.
The session continued through repeated disruptions by protestors pushing to eliminate aspects of U.S. policy they say discriminate against sex workers and drug users. Another activist from Gambia grabbed a microphone to talk about treatment in Africa. Rep. Lee urged support of her newly introduced bill, HR 6138, which she said includes provisions to address stigma and inequity in HIV/AIDS programming.
Coons said that despite budget pressures, the U.S. should increase its investments in HIV/AIDS. Instead of reducing programs, he said, “the better pathway I think is one where we double down, where we invest further in basic science, in translational medicine, development of vaccines and treatments in improving the delivery of health care both at home and abroad.” Those investments, he added “will lay the foundation for tackling a whole family of diseases and problems and challenges that face the whole globe.”
Senator Enzi said that unlike some U.S. development efforts overseas, PEPFAR is visible in target countries and recipients associate it with the U.S. “If you ask people from Africa what the United States has done, probably the one thing they will mention is help with AIDS and without that help they’d be in a real fix.” Enzi encouraged supporters of the program to “share some appreciation for what’s been done” and tell their stories to members of Congress and American taxpayers.
Teaching incoming lawmakers the bipartisan history and importance of PEPFAR is critical to support on Capitol Hill, Coons said. “Sustaining this is going to take continual travel, exposure and reinforcement on a bipartisan basis that challenges us to not just develop, invent and deliver treatments and cures but also be engaged around the world in ways that make that effective,” he said.
Even though they sometimes had to shout over protesters to do it, lawmakers on the panel indicated clear commitment to not only continued support for U.S. HIV/AIDS policies, but also to finding ways to capitalize on new biomedical interventions. Rubio noted the AIDS response is on the verge of “dynamic change in developments” and that a drop in funding and attention would be detrimental. “We’ve got to keep focused on it because if the investment and the energy is lost behind it and we kind of get stuck and progress stops happening, then it takes years to restart it,” Rubio said. He concluded: “The closer we get to the finish line is not the time to ease up—it’s time to run through the tape.”