Admittedly, the decision is startling. In the middle of battling (so far without great success) an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, on July 1 the Mississippi Department of Health bill begin charging a $25 fee for all STD and HIV tests at its clinics.
Reaction has not been supportive. A story in today’s Clarion-Ledger extensively quotes Deja Abdul-Haqq, with the Jackson organization My Brother’s Keeper: “They’re looking at numbers but not considering people… When 4 in 10 gay and bisexual men are HIV positive, when we are third in the nation for chlamydia, fifth in the nation for gonorrhea and 12th in the nation for syphilis, when syphilis rates have practically tripled, it’s not just an epidemic, it’s an epidemic on fire and your solution is to take away the small cup of water that we actually have to help.” Charging for testing will of course reduce the number of people tested, cause the state to sink ever further in rankings, and put untold new numbers of citizens at risk. What is already a public health disaster will only get worse.
I think the vast majority of Mississippi social workers would tend to agree with Mr. Abdul-Haqq’s sentiments of angry disbelief. But why aim the finger of blame at the Department of Health, and not point it past the department to the state’s political leadership, where I’m strongly inclined to think it more rightly belongs? Already badly underfunded for its mission, the Department of Health has been operationally devastated by a long series of budget cuts imposed by state leaders more concerned for reducing taxes on businesses and high-end earners than for addressing critical human capital needs. Where should it turn for funds to continue operations, if not to fees for service? Castigating the department for imposing charges is much like criticizing colleges and universities for raising student tuition in the face of repeated reductions in state appropriations.
It’s natural to react against those closest to a distasteful decision; but in this case the real blame lies elsewhere.