Senator critical of AIDS conferees

A leading critic in Congress of government waste says a U.S. delegation attending an international AIDS conference in Mexico City is “wasteful and extravagant spending,” and that the trip’s cost should have been spent on health programs here at home.

Sen. Tom Coburn says taxpayers are paying more than $470,000 to send at least 116 federal employees this week to the 17th International AIDS Conference, a major gathering of scientists, policy-makers and physicians dedicated to finding better ways to curb the spread of the epidemic.

“This is a simple question of priorities when it comes to addressing HIV/AIDS - talk or treatment? Conference or care?” said the Oklahoma Republican, who is also a physician.

The bulk of the money - $360,500 - was spent by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and agencies under its authority, including the National Institutes for Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Mr. Coburn said.

The delegation also included members from other federal departments, such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Defense Department, the Census Bureau and the Peace Corps, he said.

Mr. Coburn’s findings were included in a report released this week by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs federal financial management, government information, federal services and international security subcommittee, of which he is the ranking Republican.

HHS has denied Mr. Coburn’s accusations that it spent too much money on the trip, saying conferences are vital for keeping abreast of the latest developments in the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS.

“We continually strive to ensure we use our resources in the most efficient and targeted way [and] this includes evaluating the appropriate amount of people who are at scientific gatherings,” according to a statement released by HHS.

“We do recognize our experts can benefit from the knowledge of others, and share what they learn by attending conferences, but we must strike the right balance when approving expensive international travel.”

HHS spokeswoman Holly Babin added that she wasn’t able “to verify the accuracy of [Mr. Coburn’s] numbers” in time for this article.

A Defense Department spokeswoman also said she couldn’t confirm how many - if any - department personnel attended the trip. But she said the department conducts mandatory HIV/AIDS tests of its employees every two years.

But Mr. Coburn said the cost of the trip is more than enough to pay for life-saving medication for the 35 Americans on a waiting list for a federal AIDS drugs program, or to prevent almost 60,000 newborns from becoming infected with HIV.

“No one will die from not being able to attend a conference, but the same is not true for those who are living with HIV/AIDS and cannot access treatment,” Mr. Coburn said.

Mr. Coburn has been critical of federal funding of past AIDS conferences. In 2006, he questioned whether the federal government was acting prudently in spending “millions of dollars” on several AIDS conferences that year.

The 2008 AIDS conference, which ends Friday, has attracted more than 22,000 participants worldwide. This is the first time the biennial event has been held in Latin America.

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