An HIV modernization bill, the (HB 79), cleared its second hurdle this week passing the Florida House’s Appropriations Committee overwhelmingly 26-3.
This is the second committee to give the bill a favorable recommendation. It recently passed the House’s Criminal Justice Subcommittee, 10-3.
“We’re really excited by the bipartisan momentum that we've seen for this HIV modernization legislation,” said Jon Harris Maurer, Equality Florida’s Public Policy Director. “This is long overdue and it's exciting to see this being addressed as a criminal justice reform issue and a public health issue.”
Michael Rajner, an HIV rights activist, attributes the newfound support to advocates, stakeholders and people living with HIV meeting with lawmakers to tell their stories.
Rajner said he’s been working toward a bill like this for at least 8 years.
This is the third year this bill has been introduced and there’s been a surge in support. This is also the furthest an HIV modernization has gotten in the Florida Legislature.
“Regardless of which side of the aisle you sit on people want better public safety and better health outcomes and that’s what this bill does,” said Justin Klecha, Deputy Director of SAVE and a member of the Florida HIV Justice Coalition. “This is a fantastic bill that takes a huge step forward reducing stigma around HIV.”
Klecha said most of the opposition comes from a lack of knowledge.
“Legislators don’t know the current science around HIV, or how far we’ve come with the treatments,” Klecha said.
HB 79 must now pass through the Judiciary Committee. While in the Senate, Jason Pizzo (D - Miami), has filed similar legislation (SB 846), but no hearings have been scheduled as of yet.
“This is the first year the legislature is actually taking any actions and votes. We have a tremendous bill sponsor this year, Nick Duran out of Miami, who is incredibly passionate about this,” Rajner said. “We also owe a great deal of thanks to Dr. Hansel Tookes and the medical students at the University of Miami who have been doing a tremendous job of advocating for needle syringe exchange programs statewide and in that process have been educating legislators on HIV.”
The current law does not take into account whether a person actually transmitted HIV. Nor does it matter if a condom was used, or if the person with HIV is on treatment and undetectable.
This new bill would revise the existing law such as defining "Substantial risk of transmission" as "a reasonable probability of disease transmission as proven by competent medical or epidemiological evidence." The bill would also update outdated language such as changing "sexual intercourse" to "sexual conduct."
“I think the most profound change is that there would have to be actual intent and transmission of HIV to another individual during sex,” Rajner said.
Other changes include allowing a person who has HIV to donate blood, plasma, organs, skin, or other human tissue as long as a medical professional deems it appropriate. Currently, there are no exceptions so if someone did make such a donation they would be committing a third-degree felony. HB 79 would downgrade the penalty to a first-degree misdemeanor.
“This bill would help modernize Florida's HIV laws that were written in the mid-80s at the height of the HIV epidemic and haven't been updated to align with current science on treatment and prevention for HIV,” Maurer said. “I think most strikingly is that the law currently doesn't account for whether in fact there is any transmission of HIV. So under the current law, a person could be incarcerated for up to 30 years with a third-degree felony, even though there is no transmission of HIV, and scientifically there is no risk of transmission.”