FoxNews.com Explores Lawmakers’ Questioning of CDC HIV Prevention FundingFoxNews.com yesterday examined the current debate over the use of CDC HIV prevention funding for workshops that have been deemed "obscene" by an HHS report and several legislators. An October report from the HHS inspector general found that workshops sponsored by the San Francisco-based Stop AIDS Project, a group that targets gay and bisexual men, bore names such as "Booty Call" and "Great Sex Workshop" and explored the use of masturbation and sex toys. The report said that such workshops, which were funded in part by a $698,000 CDC grant, were "obscene" and "could be viewed as encouraging directly ... sexual activity" (Vlahos, FoxNews.com, 1/7). Federal law prohibits organizations that receive money from the CDC for HIV prevention efforts from promoting sexual activity or drug use. Prevention efforts must meet obscenity standards set forth in the 1973 Supreme Court case Miller v. California. The report led to calls in Congress for further investigation, and a provision in the fiscal year 2002 Labor-HHS appropriations bill provides for an audit of all CDC-funded HIV prevention activities (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 12/20/01).
Prevention 'By The Book'
"Some of these groups have blatantly misused federal funds. They (CDC) are just throwing money out there without monitoring how these groups are spending it. This is not something that should be taken lightly," Roland Foster, an aide for the House subcommittee on Government Affairs, said. However, Stop AIDS and its supporters, including House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said that the organization has complied with CDC guidelines. "We did everything by the book, we did everything by the rules and we'll continue to do that," Stop AIDS Project Executive Director Darlene Weide said, adding that local health boards reviewed the programs. She also noted that the programs were designed for a "limited, targeted audience -- not the general public" (FoxNews.com, 1/7). Pelosi, in a letter of support for the program sent to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson last month, said that Stop AIDS' work was particularly "crucial" in San Francisco, where she said new HIV cases among gay and bisexual men have doubled since 1997. "AIDS is still an urgent public health crisis, and the CDC must target effective HIV prevention programs to gay and bisexual men," she stated, adding that through "innovative approaches that include neighborhood outreach, community forums and workshops, Stop AIDS Project provides vital health information to gay and bisexual men" in the San Francisco area. She noted that CDC officials who attended three of the group's workshops were not upset with them and pointed out that Miller v. California says obscenity standards are "to be determined by local community standards" and not blanket guidelines. She added that the HHS inspector general's report could "undermine the work of an effective organization, and inadvertently contribute to the burden of disease and death among gay and bisexual men" (Pelosi letter, 12/13/01).
A 'Challenging' Message
However, several of Pelosi's colleagues in Congress, including Reps. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) and Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), disagreed, saying that although their views may be "politically incorrect," there is a need to discuss how CDC money is being spent, particularly because HIV cases continue to rise. Weldon said he supports prevention efforts, but "[j]ust because you're gay doesn't mean you can spend the money any way you want to, especially if it's inappropriately. Somebody needs to be scrutinizing this more closely." Charles Henry, director of the Los Angeles County Office of AIDS Programs and Policy, cautioned that "limiting" HIV prevention materials to "what Washington deems effective" may not work in the gay community. "I think the debate is a fair one and important to reinvigorating prevention. But prevention messages (are) challenging, we have to constantly reinvent them -- it's hard to get people to change their behavior" (FoxNews.com, 1/7).