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'Rick Scott Fueled The Epidemic': How FL Said No To $70M In HIV Prevention

Ben Ryan
Marlene LaLota, a veteran of the Florida department of health.

South Florida has among the highest number of new HIV cases in the country. A 2016 report from the CDC found Miami had 46 cases per 100,000 people and Ft. Lauderdale had 47 – that’s nearly double what is seen in New York City and Los Angeles.  A new investigation by the Guardian found that millions of dollars in federal funds for HIV prevention and treatment were turned away by the state of Florida while Rick Scott was governor.

The investigation also found that state health officials, under the direction of governor Scott, deliberately missed opportunities to secure federal funds to address the HIV crisis. Activists argue the money could have been used for HIV prevention like pre-exposure prophylaxis, also known as PrEP, as well as advcocacy and education.     

Ben Ryan is a freelance journalist and Editor of POZ magazine, which chronicles the lives of people living with HIV. He spoke with Luis Hernandez on Sundial about the investigation and the difference he’s seen under Governor DeSantis. 

WLRN: What led you to this investigation? Was there something that just popped up that you found? 

RYAN: Well, I started this in early 2016. I got a tip from an editor then that there were a pair of CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] grants that were rejected by governor Rick Scott's office in 2015. 

So I did all this work for about a month and I interviewed all these people and it was very much an open secret in the HIV community in Florida that this had happened. And these grants would have been about  $16 million for HIV care prevention and treatment in Miami and Broward counties. But the one person who really knew the facts was a woman,  Marlene LaLota. At the time she was the head of the HIV Bureau in the Florida Department of Health. 

And she wouldn't talk because she was still working for the Department of Health. So what happened was I dropped the case because I couldn't prove it at the time, even though I knew what had happened. But three years later, earlier this year, I got word that Marlene had left the department and she was ready to talk. So I started talking to her and while we're having this conversation about these $16 million grants, she said, 'oh, by the way, there was tens of millions of dollars we also end up blocking.' And I'm like, 'What did you just say?'

It turns out that there was about 54 million dollars from HRSA for a program called Ryan White, which is a niche federal program that provides care and treatment for people living with HIV who are lower income. 

The Miami Herald recently caught up with now Senator Rick Scott and asked him why the federal money wasn't spent, here's what he said: 

First off in my years as governor, one thing you try to do is try to make sure everybody gets taken care of. And whether it's HIV or cancer or all these things, you try to do everything you can to make sure that  if there's federal resources and it makes sense for your state, you use them on top of that. If there are private resources you do the same thing there. 

Have you heard from the Scott administration as to why that money wasn't spent at the time? 

Notice that he did not deny it. So when I saw that clip on Twittera few days ago, I felt very gratified that I effectively had proved that yes, they were behind this because otherwise he would have denied it. I did get a statement when I was closing the story from his office and it said,  'your characterization is not accurate. Senator Scott supports efforts by the administration to make sure everyone is getting the care they need.  As governor Senator Scott invested record funding for HIV AIDS prevention,' which is similar to what he's said before. He was referring to CDC dollars that were spent around that time that I was looking at. And PolitiFact already proved that the funding he was talking about was all coming from the federal government except for a small pittance from the state. 

Have we seen anything different in the current administration, governor Ron DeSantis? Is he still running things the same way? 

There does seem to be a lot more flexibility and relaxation from what I've heard. What I do know in particular is that, after my article came out, a journalist asked Governor DeSantis that day how he felt about my story. And what Governor DeSantis said was that he was very enthusiastic about receiving new money from the federal government because there's this huge plan that's backed by President Trump. It was created by HHS [Health and Human Services Department] and the plan is to spend a lot more money on HIV and in particular targeting 48 counties plus D.C. and San Juan Puerto, Rico who have very high HIV rates. And in particular that means seven counties in Florida.

DeSantis expressed great enthusiasm for this new money. He said he basically was just frustrated he couldn't get it sooner so that was very encouraging for the future of the epidemic in Florida. 

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.