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Utah Senate blocks federal money for people with HIV/AIDS
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Utah Senate blocks federal money for people with HIV/AIDS

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

In a surprise move, Republican leaders of the Utah Senate blocked approval of a federal grant for people living with HIV/AIDS, potentially depriving them of treatment for at least a month.

The Republican action came on April 7, during a routine post-session review of federal grants that require approval of the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee.

Utah currently receives federal money to provide anti-viral medications for people with HIV/AIDS through the Ryan White Act. Money for the program runs out this month, and committee action is required to extend funding for another year.

Nearly $4 million in federal funds are at issue. The state of Utah also contributes about $2 million each year for HIV medications in order to qualify for federal funds.

The Senate committee delayed approval of the state's share of the expense, effectively blocking federal grant money.

"Doesn't Obamacare pay for this?" asked Republican Senate President Michael Waddoups at the committee hearing.

Waddoups announced he would not vote to accept the grant until all his questions were answered, although the Ryan White grants have never been questioned in previous years.

State Department of Health officials said they had received no prior notice that legislators would be questioning the Ryan White grant or any others on the list.

After the Appropriations Committee's action, the grants could be approved no sooner than the committee's next scheduled meeting in May.

The Utah Health Department has already endured budget cutbacks for the previous two years, and now must replace $420,000 in federal funds from other agency programs to cover the cost of providing HIV medications through April.

Waddoups and other Republican leaders said that voicing concerns about federal grants should not be interpreted as intending harm to HIV/AIDS patients.

"If this is a life-and-death decision, no one on this committee wants to vote against this," said Republican House Budget Chairman Ron Bigelow, adding that no one would die because federal funds were held up.

"In the five years I've been here, we've never missed this [grant approval] deadline," said Utah Department of Health executive director Dr. David Sundwall.

"[The] few people who need these drugs, really need them," Sundwall said, adding that HIV/AIDS patients might not die if they miss their medications for a month, but they would certainly suffer.

Democrats on the committee objected to the delay, but to no avail.

Democratic Rep. Jennifer Seelig, reportedly sighed audibly as Republicans kept asking what harm would come by waiting until May to consider the grant.

Democratic Rep. Carol Sparkman said she was "really troubled" by Republican questions, because it was unclear to her if they objected on policy grounds, or if they had issues with homosexuality, or if they just wanted to score political points against healthcare reform.

A large majority of the Utah legislature is Republican. In March they passed a bill and a joint resolution announcing they would delay any healthcare reform regulations for at least a year, and nullify any new regulations deemed to violate state sovereignty.

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