Health officials in Tennessee say they will deny federal funding to groups that provide services to residents with HIV.
Earlier this week, the Tennessee Department of Health announced that it would no longer accept grant money from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earmarked for HIV testing, prevention and treatment.
In an email reviewed by NBC News, the Department of Health told certain nonprofit organizations that provide these services that the state would reject federal funding starting in June, relying solely on state funds thereafter. “It is in the best interest of Tennesseans that the State take direct financial and management responsibility for these services,” the email read.
When asked for comment by NBC News, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said “the letter speaks for itself.”
About 20,000 people in Tennessee are living with HIV, although not all of the cuts would be affected. There was no further guidance on how the state planned to fund such programs on its own.
The move stunned HIV experts.
“I can’t understand why the state would give back funds directed at health care,” said Diane Duke, president and chief executive officer of Friends for Life, a Memphis group that provides services to people living with HIV. Friends for Life was among the groups that received a notice from the state. “It’s outrageous,” she said.
Shelby County, where Memphis is located, is one of the counties in the nation with the highest rates of HIV and AIDS. In 2020, 819 per 100,000 Shelby County residents had HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And those were just the people who got an official diagnosis.
“A lot of people are walking around with HIV, and they don’t even realize it,” Duke said. Testing for the virus is a big part of the work Friends for Life does. “When someone tests positive, we’re able to get them into care right away,” she said.
Greg Millett, director of public policy for the nonprofit group amfAR, the AIDS Research Foundation, called the decision “horrific.” He worries that Tennessee health officials are setting a dangerous precedent.
“If other states follow suit,” Millett said, “we’re going to be in trouble.”
Millet said the CDC provides up to $10 million in HIV funding to Tennessee. It is not yet clear how much of that money will be turned away.
He said he is concerned that the state’s guidance will result in discrimination against marginalized groups most at risk of HIV.
“The vast majority of new HIV cases are among gay and bisexual men, transgender populations, heterosexual women, as well as people who inject drugs,” he said.
“We have the tools we need to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in terms of prevention and care,” said Millett. “If Tennessee is not using those tools, not using CDC funding and not targeting the groups most at risk for HIV, there is the potential for an outbreak.”
The CDC provides millions of dollars each year to states for HIV testing kits, condoms and medication to prevent infection, known as PrEP.
In a statement provided to NBC News on Friday, the CDC said it was not aware that Tennessee — or any other state — planned to stop accepting the grant money.
“We have not received any official notice from the Tennessee Department of Health withdrawing CDC funding for HIV prevention,” the CDC said. Without such notice, the CDC will automatically continue payments to the state.
The federal agency also said it would be “certainly concerned if the services that people in Tennessee need to stay healthy are disrupted or if public health’s ability to respond to HIV outbreaks and end this epidemic is hindered.”
Continue NBC HEALTH on Twitter & Facebook.