HHS Conducting Audit of Funding for AIDS Groups That Protested Thompson’s Speech During XIV International AIDS ConferenceHHS is reviewing the federal funding for more than a dozen AIDS organizations, many of which participated in a demonstration against HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson during the XIV International AIDS Conference last month, the Washington Post reports. The audit was requested by 12 members of Congress who were "upset" by the protests against Thompson and unhappy with what they viewed as a lack of religious themes at the conference (Brown, Washington Post, 8/19). On July 9, Thompson, who headed the U.S. delegation to the conference, had his speech "drowned out" by protestors who were angry with the Bush administration for not pledging more money to international HIV/AIDS efforts.
Last month 12 Republican House members sent a letter to Thompson requesting that his agency account for all U.S. funding that went to support the conference and provide a list of individuals who received grants from the government to attend the conference. In the letter, the representatives noted that the United States is spending $1 billion on international HIV/AIDS efforts this year in addition to funding for AIDS-related research and development. They also stated that the United States has spent more on global HIV/AIDS than any other nation, having provided more than $100 billion since the beginning of the epidemic. In light of these figures, the representatives said they were "very disappointed by the rude reception" Thompson received (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 7/23). On the same day the letter was written, Roland Foster, a staff member for the House Government Reform subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources, sent an e-mail message to an employee in HHS' legislative affairs office asking how much federal funding the 12 U.S. AIDS organizations that participated in the protest receive. Six days later, Foster expanded the number of organizations in the audit request from 12 organizations to 16. Some of the organizations under review include the Gay Men's Health Crisis, AIDS Project Los Angeles, the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition and the Treatment Action Group. Deputy HHS Secretary Claude Allen said he "doesn't know what use, if any, will be made of the information" requested, and the Post reports that it "remains unclear what the outcome of the audits might be."
A 'Witch Hunt'?
Although HHS officials describe the audit request as "routine," the Post reports that observers "both inside and outside the department" say that some HHS officials are "genuinely angry and are seeking to prevent what they view as disrespectful behavior in the future." AIDS activists say that the audits could have a "chilling effect" on future protests and could affect their funding. "Anybody who hears what's happened is going to think twice about signing another flier or planning another demonstration," Mark Harrington, executive director of the Treatment Action Group, said. But Allen said that the department is not trying to punish dissenters. "It doesn't behoove us to want to engage in a witch hunt. ... We work with both our supporters and our detractors. We know that when you're engaged in highly significant issues that affect life and death, you're going to have differences of opinion," Allen said. He added that protesters "need to recognize that Congress is watching what we do" and should "think twice before preventing a Cabinet-level official from bringing a message of hope to an international forum" (Washington Post, 8/19). A kaisernetwork.org HealthCast of Thompson's speech is available online.