News & Press

Mississippi Mess

Mississippi Mess

Colomb is appalled by the Health Department’s behavior

Mississippi AIDS advocates are outraged by revelations that State AIDS Director Craig Thompson knew about and failed to apply for CDC funding for HIV prevention for men who have sex with men (MSM).

“It wasn’t applicable to us,” Thompson said at a Mississippi Prevention Planning Group for HIV Prevention meeting last Friday, which was tape-recorded by PPG member Mark Colomb (listen to the audio).

Thompson said the Health Department didn’t want to spend staff resources applying for the grant—a three to four page proposal—and that he didn’t believe there were enough community-based organizations qualified to address the need.

“This grant didn’t offer anything in particular we believed we could deal with,” Thompson said

The Centers for Disease Control grant, Funding Opportunities Announcement number (FOA) 04012, is a pot of $4 million intended to be divided by eligible states and juristdictions and could be used to set up a prevention program targeting MSM. Currently Mississippi has such MSM prevention programs but only for five of its 82 counties (Hinds, Madison, Rankin, Washington and Warren).

“Denying to apply for the HIV funding just shows how the Mississippi health department does not see MSMs as a high priority,” said Valencia Robinson, field organizer of AIDS Action in Mississippi. Robinson said that in a phone conversation with Thompson,Thompson said the reason Mississippi didn’t apply for the funding is because state legislators don’t care about gay men. “That’s homophobic,” Robinson said. “You can’t address the epidemic if you’re not addressing the people most affected by it.”

According to the CDC’s 2007 report, 29 percent of new infections in Mississippi are among MSM. This is just an estimate because Mississippi doesn’t specifically track infections among MSM. “This epidemic is not about African-American women as much as it is about African-American men,” Thompson said at the meeting. “We really don’t know how many MSM there are because we don’t identify them…They’re not exactly raising their hands.”

More questions remain

For advocates in Mississippi this is part of a troubling Health Department pattern. In testimony before Congress two years ago Thompson said Mississippi had to turn back HOPWA dollars because the state couldn’t spend it. The latest revelation about the CDC funding makes advocates wonder if there are other grants the Health Department hasn’t applied for. “This is the final straw,” Robinson said.

Mark Colomb, executive director of My Brother’s Keeper, a group that focuses on black men in the Jackson area, agreed: “I have no respect for Thompson and no faith that he can get the job done.”

The grant came to the attention of Mississippi advocates by chance. Colomb was attending the United States Conference of AIDS (USCA) in Florida last month, and CDC employees asked him why Mississippi didn’t apply for the funding. “They said ‘Because you guys have problems with infections among MSM we expected you to submit an application,’ ” Colomb told the Update. Even though the RFP is only directed to state and local health departments, Colomb had his agency fill out an application to ask the CDC for supplemental funding to do similar activities

Thompson would not speak directly to the Update but Health Department spokesperson Liz Sharlot said, “We make these decisions every day. Applying for grants takes time and effort.”

Community outrage

One of the reasons Thompson gave for saying thanks but no thanks to the CDC funding is that he estimated that Mississippi would only receive $80,000, or 1/50th of the funding and that it would not be worth the Health Department resources to apply for the grant. “Given what we know about CDC funding, and what it believes they know but doesn’t really know, our take would not be even $80,000,” Thompson said at the meeting. However, there was no way of knowing how much funding Mississippi would have gotten.

Thompson also said there are not enough statewide organizations addressing HIV prevention among men to qualify for a “request for a proposal” or RFP and that there is still money to be spent. “In 2003 we sent out an RFP to 400 groups, and we got about 20 back. Some were totally worthless, and some we could fund,” Thompson said.

Colomb said that this was a poor excuse.“The health department has the gumption to turn down funding because they don’t have enough staff,” Colomb said at the meeting. “We do have disproportionate numbers of people being infected. At least the community should have been aware [of the funding].”

Robinson said if anything, the lack of available AIDS groups highlights the lack of AIDS prevention for MSMs and is something the Mississippi Health Department should work to address. In addition, she said the Health Department is heavy-handed and often doesn’t fund groups it doesn’t agree with politically. “You have to stay in Craig’s good graces if you want to be funded,” she said.

Posted on October 16, 2008 at 10:26 am