Community-led organizations are vital to ending the HIV epidemic

Last week, Tennessee state officials made clear their intentions to no longer accept millions of dollars in federal money aimed at ending the HIV epidemic in the state.

Dozens of organizations — including a member of AIDS United’s Public Policy Council and several AIDS United grantees — learned vital funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for HIV prevention, testing and treatment programs would disappear in a matter of months.

The importance of this funding for organizations led by and working within the communities most at risk for HIV cannot be overstated.

These organizations are laboring day and night to get people tested for HIV, get people at risk for contracting HIV on PrEP, a medicine that prevents HIV, and to connect those of us living with HIV to health care. They are saving lives. They are ending the HIV epidemic. And they need more money, not less.

It is because of these organizations that Tennessee went from 183 people on PrEP in 2014 to nearly 7,000 in 2021. Just between 2020 and 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people on PrEP jumped by 44% in the state.

That’s because community-based organizations do the hard work of building relationships of trust in their own communities.

For many LGBTQ Tennesseans, these organizations are the primary way they access health care and one of the few places that treat them with compassion and respect. For Black and Brown Tennesseans who are disproportionately impacted by HIV, these organizations are often the only place where they can receive affordable, culturally competent care. And for rural Tennesseans, these organizations are often the only place they can receive sexual and reproductive health services.

Nashville CARES, which is a member of AIDS United’s Public Policy Council, is just one example. It serves 50,000 people annually throughout the 17 counties of Middle Tennessee. It has received money from this grant program for 15 years to fund testing in several emergency departments throughout Nashville. It receives around $315,000 per year in CDC funding, which is distributed through United Way of Greater Nashville.

“The money supports HIV testing for emergency room patients, community testing, condom distribution, treatment for individuals living with HIV, and PrEP navigation,” says Amna Osman, CEO of Nashville Cares. “The emergency room testing will be hit hardest.”

She shared with WPLN News that because of this program a 67-year-old grandmother learned she was living with HIV. She came into the emergency room with a broken toe, but left knowing she was living with HIV and how to get the care she needed to stay healthy.

Osman told WPLN “she would have never known her HIV status if it wasn’t for us being at the emergency department, and these funds made it possible.”

“These funds are not just standalone,” Osman said. “When people think about HIV prevention funding, it also impacts care and treatment. You can’t think of the programs as separate. They’re very intertwined.”

This lifesaving program will go away unless Tennessee officials change course or an alternative funding stream is created. AIDS service organizations, community-based organizations and syringe services programs have decades of experience serving the HIV community. This is going to decimate that.

We are closely monitoring what’s happening in Tennessee. We are supporting our members and grantees in Tennessee. We are working with our public and private partners to ensure these critical programs have the funding they need to continue.

We are also monitoring other states, as we cannot let this become a national trend. We’ve come too close to ending the HIV epidemic for us to be derailed now.

We’re in this together.