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Halt, says Hutchinson

Unhappy with HIV grant for blacks.

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For the second year in a row, Rep. Donna Hutchinson, R-Bella Vista, has tried (but failed) to stop a state grant for an organization that disseminates information about HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment to African-American homosexuals.

Hutchinson put a hold on Arkansas Legislative Council Review Committee reviews on $50,000 grants to Brothas and Sistas Inc. in the most recent effort on Feb. 4.

The state Department of Health joined with the Arkansas Minority Health Commission to do outreach to the African American community, and is the grantor of the 2010 grant, made with federal funds. The AMHC was the grantor in 2009, using tobacco lawsuit settlement funds.

In an e-mail to the Times, Hutchinson said Brothas and Sistas was “going beyond the perimeters of their grant and using rather sloppy bookkeeping. … I would ask the same questions if the group wanted to help White Baptist Virgins.” Hutchinson withdrew her request for the grant to be held after representatives from the state Health Department told the review committee it did not have a problem with the grantee.

Hutchinson did not return several requests for an interview by a Times reporter, so it's unknown why she asked to put a hold on the same grant in March 2009, the first year Brothas and Sistas received it and before it had a track record for
Hutchinson to examine.

Idonia Trotter, Minority Health Commission director, said the state agency provided Hutchinson with information on Brothas and Sistas' progress at the end of 2009 as requested, and provided more information, also at the legislator's request, to the commission and the Health Department in January. Trotter said she believed Hutchinson was bothered by the community the grant was to address and how she could justify it to her constituents.

Trotter also said Hutchinson took issue with the fact that Brothas and Sistas showed the film “For the Bible Tells Me So: Homosexuality Versus the Bible” at an event last summer with the gay community. Trotter said the organization's decision to show the film, made in response to requests for a discussion of spirituality and homosexuality, may have been a naive one.
Trotter said she has asked the attorney general's office for an opinion on whether showing the film violated strictures against using state funds for religious activity.

Hutchinson also suggested that the Health Department audit the Minority Health Commission records, Trotter said, something both agencies objected to. “I don't know of any state agency required to do an audit of another state agency,” she said, with the exception of the division of legislative audit. The commission provided Hutchinson with an audit of the HIV programs in November. She said Hutchinson is welcome to review the commission's files and “work through her concerns.”

Kevin Dedner of the Department of Health, who met with Hutchinson, said he believes Hutchinson is now comfortable with the decision to award the grant to Brothas and Sistas.

Trotter said Brothas and Sistas is doing “an amazing job” putting out information about HIV and AIDS in the black gay community, where the disease is on the increase. “What the epidemiology shows is this is exactly the type of community that should be reached out to,” Trotter said, one that has lacked “networks of education and awareness.”

According to the Health Department, nearly half (49 percent) of the new diagnoses of HIV infection in 2009 were in minorities, 42 percent African American and 7 percent Hispanic, though those groups make up only 21 percent of the Arkansas population.

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