Senate Nears Vote to Triple Anti-AIDS Funding

By admin

Originally published on Advocate.com July 16 2008 11:00 PM ET

The Senate on
Wednesday diverted $2 billion from a $50 billion global
AIDS bill to improve the lives of American Indians.

Senators mainly
from the West successfully argued on the need to carve
out a small portion of the five-year AIDS spending bill for
Indian programs, saying Congress shouldn't forget a
humanitarian crisis much closer to home.

''We don't have
to go off of our shore to find third world conditions,''
said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. The money would go to law
enforcement, health and water projects in Indian
country.

The agreement set
the stage for passage of the AIDS bill as early as
Wednesday evening. With that, the House and Senate would
work out a final version to send to President Bush.

Bush, who first
committed the United States to a campaign against AIDS in
Africa during his 2003 State of the Union address, supports
the legislation, which has been hailed for prolonging
the lives of millions in Africa and other afflicted
areas of the world.

The new bill
would replace and significantly expand a $15 billion AIDS
plan that Congress passed in 2003 at the president's urging.
That act, which includes money to fight malaria and
tuberculosis, expires at the end of September.

While the
dramatic increase in spending met some resistance,
supporters pointed to the notable successes of the
past five years in treating those with HIV/AIDS and
preventing the spread of the pandemic.

''We have the
ability to prevent these illnesses, to treat them as never
before, and to save lives,'' said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H.,
a fiscal conservative. ''That's why this funding is so
badly needed and will be so beneficial. This is
greatest humanitarian crisis, I think, that I've
seen.''

Among the issues
the House and Senate will have to resolve is a
Senate-added provision that would end a two-decade old
policy whereby HIV-positive foreign nationals are
restricted in getting travel visas and applying for
residency in the United States.

The U.S. is one
of a dozen countries -- including Sudan, Saudi Arabia,
Libya and Russia -- that ban travel and immigration for
HIV-positive people.

Even China, said
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., recently changed that policy,
deciding it was ''time to move beyond an antiquated,
knee-jerk reaction'' to people with HIV.

''There's no
excuse for a law that stigmatizes a particular disease,''
Kerry said Tuesday at a speech to the Center for Strategic
and International Studies HIV/AIDS Task Force.

Kerry and Sen.
Gordon Smith, R-Ore., are trying to repeal the ban, first
implemented in 1987 and confirmed by Congress in 1993.

Under current
law, HIV is the only medical condition explicitly listed
under immigration law. The Kerry-Smith provision would make
HIV equivalent to other communicable diseases where
medical and public health experts at the Health and
Human Services Department -- not consular officials at
U.S. embassies -- determine eligibility for admission.

Those with HIV
seeking legal permanent residency would still have to
demonstrate they have the resources to live in this country
and would not become a ''public charge.''

A spokeswoman for
the House Foreign Affairs Committee said they were
waiting to see the details of the final Senate bill before
deciding what issues would need to be negotiated.

The President's
Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR, has
helped bring lifesaving antiretroviral drugs to some 1.7
million people and has supported care for nearly 7
million, including some 2.7 million AIDS orphans and
vulnerable children.

Before the
program began, only 50,000 in all of sub-Saharan Africa were
receiving antiretroviral drugs.

The
Democratic-led Senate, rarely in agreement with the White
House, gave Bush credit for initiating the program.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee and a chief negotiator in
crafting the bill, said PEPFAR is ''the single most
significant thing the president has done.''

Indiana Sen.
Richard Lugar, top Republican on the Foreign Relations
Committee, and co-negotiator with Biden, said the program
''has helped to prevent instability and societal
collapse in a number of at-risk countries.'' He added
that it has ''facilitated deep partnerships with a new
generation of African leaders and it has improved attitudes
toward the United States in Africa and other
regions.''

The bill that was
passed by the House in April approved $50 billion,
including $5 billion for malaria, $4 billion for
tuberculosis, and $41 billion for AIDS. Of the AIDS
money, a small percentage -- $2 billion next year --
would go to the international Global Fund to Fight AIDS,
Tuberculosis and Malaria. Actual spending levels still have
to be approved in annual appropriations bills. (Jim
Abrams, AP)