HIV/AIDS council members fired by Trump; 2 Atlantans among them

6:27 p.m Friday, Dec. 29, 2017 Nation & World
The White House this week dismissed members of an HIV/AIDS advisory council, including two members from Atlanta. President Donald Trump is pictured at a Friday gathering with Coast Guard service members at his Trump National Golf Club in West Palm Beach. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

Two Atlantans were among the final 10 members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS who were fired en masse by the Trump administration Wednesday through a form letter delivered by FedEx.

Patrick Sullivan, a professor and epidemiologist at Emory University, and Oliver Clyde Allen III, an author and pastor at The Vision Church of Atlanta, were both appointed to the council by President Obama.

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The firings came months after a half-dozen other members resigned in protest of the Trump administration’s position on health policies, including its desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Sullivan, who was appointed to a four-year term in May 2016, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the notice was respectful, thanked him for his service and “made clear the termination was effective immediately.”

Sullivan called the letter “unexpected.”

“We certainly have been vocal that repeal of the Affordable Care Act would worsen health and increase new HIV infections,” Sullivan said. “One of our recommendations was to endorse the national HIV/AIDS strategy, which was developed by the Obama administration … but reflected the work of a very diverse group of people.”

“Many of us considered that a national road map, and thought of endorsing it as an opportunity for leadership.”

Sullivan said “it’s hard to say” if that recommendation led to the firings.

The council, known by the acronym PACHA, has advised the White House on HIV/AIDS policies since its founding in 1995. Members, who are not paid, offer recommendations to the five-year plan responding to the epidemic.

The group is designed to include “doctors, members of industry, members of the community and, very importantly, people living with HIV,” said Scott Schoettes, an attorney with the LGBT rights organization Lambda Legal. “Without it, you lose the community voice in policy making.”

Schoettes was among six members who quit in June, and he went out with a fiery commentary in Newsweek: “The Trump Administration has no strategy to address the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, seeks zero input from experts to formulate HIV policy, and — most concerning — pushes legislation that will harm people living with HIV and halt or reverse important gains made in the fight against this disease,” he wrote.

“We tried to stick it out,” Schoettes told The Washington Post on Friday. But, he said, the “writing was on the wall.”

“The tipping point for me was the president’s approach to the Affordable Care Act,” Schoettes said. “It is of great importance for people living with HIV like myself.”

The council’s executive director, Kaye Hayes, confirmed in a statement that all remaining council members had received letters Wednesday “informing them that the administration was terminating their appointments.” The deadline for applications to the new council is Jan. 2.

The PACHA website, which says it was updated Dec. 28, now shows only two staff; all council members photos and bios were removed.

“Changing the makeup of federal advisory committee members is a common occurrence during administration changes,” Hayes said in the statement. “The Obama administration dismissed the George W. Bush administration appointees to PACHA in order to bring in new voices. All PACHA members are eligible to apply to serve on the new council that will be convened in 2018.”

Nicholas Carlisle, a council member and executive director of the Southern AIDS Coalition, agreed that it’s not unprecedented for a new president to remove an entire council. But it’s more typical for members to serve staggered terms and rotate off gradually, he said.

“To be frank, it is a bit strange,” Carlisle said. “It felt very unceremonious to get a letter in the mail over the holidays with a short amount of time to reapply.

“I think there’s no way to know why President Trump decided to do this at this time. Did it take a year to get around to it? Was it retaliation for some of the recommendations? Was it a desire to stack the council with people are who like-minded?”

Carlisle said he doesn’t plan to reapply for the council because there is not enough time. Sullivan said he’s undecided, but plans to watch the council’s work from afar if he decides to not reapply.

“I think there are lots of ways to be engaged,” Sullivan said. “At a minimum … the federal Advisory Committee Act makes the work very transparent. Many meetings are podcast. So whether I apply or not, I will be a consumer of these meetings.

“It’s a way to understand what conversations are being had and make public comment.”

Schoettes is not optimistic that the notice for new applicants will attract qualified people.

“The only criteria for serving this president is loyalty,” he said. “From the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], to this body, to the FBI, there is a real problem this has with dialogue or dissent.”

The Washington Post and AJC staff writer Johnny Edwards contributed to this report.

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