Florida has been in the midst of an HIV/AIDS crisis for years, with numbers of new infections increasing significantly during Sen. Rick Scott’s time as governor. The epidemic has now been revealed to be thanks in no small part to his decision to block millions in federal aid to combat the rising rate of new infections.
From 2015 to 2017, the state was forced to return $54 million in unspent grants due to what appears to be a deliberate decision by officials to not secure legislative permission to spend the funds, The Guardian found.
Additionally, his administration blocked two CDC grant applications that could have brought another $16 million to Miami and Broward counties, which have among the highest HIV diagnosis rates in the country. The former healthcare executive and current senator also refused to expand Medicaid in the state, as part of his efforts to attempt to take down the Affordable Care Act.
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Marlene LaLota, who worked at the Florida Department of Health in the HIV/AIDS Bureau during Scott’s tenure as governor, has blamed him for fueling the epidemic.
“How many infections could have been prevented with that money? How many lives could have been saved? Shame on them,” said LaLota.
Prior to Scott taking over as governor, the state’s infection rate was on the decline. In 2017, according to the CDC, Florida saw the highest number of new HIV diagnoses in the nation, with 4,783 cases, representing 13% of the national total.
“Rick Scott had us all on lockdown,” LaLota said. “It didn’t used to be like that with previous governors.”
“I wrote a plan to end the epidemic. But we were stopped at every turn. I could not give that money away to save my life. It was so criminal and so egregious.”
“I was perhaps naive,” said Stephen Fallon, executive director of Latinos Salud, who wrote most of Miami’s grant applications and routed them through the health department as required. “I knew that policies can be more ideological than considerate of the constituents in the state of Florida. But I didn’t assume the Scott administration would be anti–HIV funding in any way.”
LaLota said she was told by her superior that the governor had denied permission to apply due to “a lack of budget authority to spend such new money.”
“My sense is frankly that [the HIV crisis] just wasn’t a priority for Scott,” said William McColl, vice-president for policy and advocacy at AIDS United. “He clearly thinks of healthcare as a profit source.”