The regular session of the 87th Texas Legislature began on January 12 and concluded on May 31, 2021. Advocacy is one of the guiding principles of the Achieving Together Plan. Through advocacy, we aim to promote and implement policies that support the work in all areas of the plan. We need supportive policies at the federal, state, local, and organizational levels. Achieving Together sat down with Januari Fox, Director of Policy and Advocacy for Prism Health North Texas, to learn more about the HIV-related items addressed during the session and their potential impact on HIV prevention, treatment, and care in Texas.
What were the main legislative priorities around HIV as this session started?
Going into the session, we had House Bill 369, which would have increased the criminal penalties for aggravated assault by communicable disease, on our radar. This is a typical HIV criminalization bill, even though HIV is not directly named. However, we quickly learned that the budget for the Texas HIV Medication Program was in a critical state. An immediate $52 million in funding was needed to keep the program solvent through August 2021, with an additional $104 million needed for the 2022-23 budget cycle. The $52 million was found through Coronavirus Relief funds and federal supplemental funding, which was excellent. The work lay with the $36.6 million being requested through an exceptional item in the state budget.
What did you and your fellow advocates do during the session to help push increased funding for the HIV program and how receptive were legislators?
Advocates started visiting with our legislative champions very early on, educating them on the need for the THMP program to remain fully funded. We met with Representatives Toni Rose, Julie Johnson, and Donna Howard, and collected letters of support from Representative Garnet Coleman and Senator Boris Miles. We met with the Speaker of the House’s office, as well as the office of the Governor. Legislative briefs were created and distributed, and we had a great deal of contact with the media, who showed a particular interest in this story. Senator Louis Kolkhorst was one of our strongest champions, rallying for us during the appropriations process.
What was the outcome and what is your response to the outcome?
I am thrilled to say that the program was awarded $36.6 million in state budget funds through strong community advocacy and watchfulness. However, this is far less than the $104 million needed to keep the program solvent over the next two years. The state HIV/STD department is taking a considerable risk at the expense of people living with HIV. They are counting on federal supplemental funding and Coronavirus Relief funding, which will be determined later. If these funds are not received, by DSHS’s calculations up to 5,800 people living with HIV would be relegated to a waitlist and unable to receive their medications.
How will the outcome change or not change the work you do?
Our next steps are to ensure the THMP receives the approximately $15 million needed to keep Texans off wait lists in the very near future. This will more than likely happen during one of the upcoming special sessions being called by the Governor. Moving forward, advocates want to focus on the growth of the program, including increasing FPL eligibility, adding more medications to the formulary, and addressing systemic barriers that make it difficult for both people living with HIV and the organizations who serve them to be as effective as possible.
What are ways that others can get involved in the future?
One of the easiest ways for people to get involved and stay up to date is to JOIN the Texas Strike Force. This amazing group of advocates stay on top of all information the community needs to be aware of and organizes accordingly. I also want to encourage people to attend the quarterly Texas HIV Medication Program Advisory Committee meetings. These open meetings are a great way to hear about what is going on at the state level, and attendees are allowed up to three minutes of public comment. DSHS is also making a concerted effort to be more transparent and communicative with stakeholders and have held several town halls and partnership meetings. It is important for us to remain involved and at the table as much as possible.