Health

New Tennessee health commissioners avoids discussing HIV funding cut

Dr. Ralph Alvarado is the new commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health. He is a former Republican state senator from Kentucky. He is seen here speaking during a 2019 Republican Party of Kentucky event.
  • Dr. Ralph Alvarado is the state’s new health chief.
  • He comes to Tennessee from Kentucky, where he served as a Republican state senator.

Tennessee’s new health commissioner briefly discussed, but didn’t take questions, on the state’s refusal of federal HIV/AIDS prevention funds during his first appearance before lawmakers Wednesday.

“Right now, it’s in the best interest of Tennesseans for the state to assume direct financial and managerial responsibility for these services,” Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Ralph Alvarado told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, the panel’s chairman, asked senators to hold their questions for Alvarado until he returns on March 15 for the department’s budget hearing, since Wednesday was was the committee’s first meeting.

But the panel’s lone Democratic lawmaker said the committee should have pressed ahead.

“We can not wait that long before we have a broader discussion about this issue,” Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said after the hearing. “People on both sides of the aisle and from every region of the state were surprised by the governor’s and commissioner’s decision. They want to see answers, and frankly they want to see a reversal of this.”

Alvarado also dodged questions from reporters as he rushed out following the conclusion of the committee meeting.

State declines federal HIV funding, likely over Planned Parenthood grant

Last week, the state health department announced it would decline over $2 million in federal grants for HIV/AIDS tracking, prevention and treatment starting May 31. The move appears to target funds going to Planned Parenthood, which distributes free condoms as part of an HIV prevention program. 

The state has been trying for years to cut off this money, which was first approved in 2008 by then-Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. Republicans have consistently attacked Planned Parenthood because it provides abortion services. But abortions make up a small percentage of the organization’s health services across the nation.

A letter obtained by The Commercial Appeal and the Associated Press shows that two months before the funding was cut announcement, the state tried to remove Planned Parenthood from the HIV/AIDS funding program.

More:Tennessee to cut off funding to nonprofits for HIV prevention, testing, treatment

Ashley Coffield, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, told The Commercial Appeal the HIV funding cut is likely to hit Shelby County the hardest. 

“It’s politics before people, and it puts people’s health and well-being at risk,” Coffield said.

In Tennessee, Planned Parenthood has stopped providing abortions since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the state’s strict abortion law to go into effect. 

The funding cut will impact Planned Parenthood and all nonprofits not affiliated with metro health departments. The United Way and several other nonprofits will be impacted by the funding cut.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asking for help to secure direct funding from the federal government for these nonprofits losing the funds. 

Meanwhile, state House Democratic Caucus chair John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, and Yarbro introduced a bill to require the state to take federal HIV/AIDS funds. 

Gov. Bill Lee appointed Alvarado as the state’s health commissioner last November. Alvarado is an internal medicine doctor and a former Republican Kentucky state Senator. 

Corrine Kennedy and Micaela Watts from the Commercial Appeal contributed to this report.

Adam Friedman is The Tennessean’s state government and politics reporter. Reach him by email at afriedman@tennessean.com

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