Six members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) have resigned, furious at what they say is the new administration's regressive health policies and a lack of care shown by President Trump.
Scott Schoettes, Lucy Bradley-Springer, Gina Brown, Ulysses Burley III, Michelle Ogle, and Grissel Granados announced their resignations publicly in a joint letter for Newsweek magazine.
"As advocates for people living with HIV, we have dedicated our lives to combating this disease and no longer feel we can do so effectively within the confines of an advisory body to a president who simply does not care," they wrote.
"The Trump Administration has no strategy to address the on-going 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."
First established in 1995, PACHA is tasked with advising the White House on the best way to tackle the spread of the disease. Medical experts, public health officials, and people living with HIV/AIDS are appointed by each president and hold regular meetings. Roughly 21 people were members before this week's resignations.
But things have been different since Trump arrived in the Oval Office on Jan. 20, former members told BuzzFeed News.
"After the inauguration and after I saw how this administration is going after so many things that make a difference in HIV, I just felt like I can't be on that council and say I was working for the current administration," said Bradley-Springer, a retired nurse and University of Colorado Denver associate professor.
Schoettes, the HIV project director for Lambda Legal, said the administration has shown itself to be anti-science.
"I think there's a general sense that the atmosphere has changed and our job at the council was going to be much harder," he said. "It was my sense that I did not have any real say with this administration and that's in part because it's not an administration that wants to deal in facts, wants to deal in science."
"I think HIV was never a priority for this White House. The Trump campaign refused to even meet with HIV advocates," he said.
Burley, a physician turned public health consultant who was the program director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America strategy on HIV/AIDS, said the group's meeting in March was held in a nondescript government building, whereas previous meetings were held in the White House or Department of Health and Human Services. "It was in a room previously used for storage," he said. "You could see we were being moved down the totem pole in terms of importance."
A White House source defended the administration, saying domestic policy council (DPC) staff have met with HIV/AIDS representatives several times.
Trump has also hired infectious disease expert Katy Talento to lead health policy on the DPC, a move that was praised by the AIDS Institute. The PACHA members who resigned also never contacted contacted Talento with their concerns, according to the source.
As part of the changeover in administrations, the Office of National AIDS Policy website was immediately taken down when Trump took over, and roughly five months into his presidency a new website is yet to be established. Further, like many positions in the executive branch, the president has still not appointed anyone to head the White House Office of National AIDS Policy.
"In the overall scheme of things, I don't think we're high on the radar because they have so many other things they're behind on," said Bradley-Springer, who has worked to treat HIV since 1988.
Bradley-Springer said she and her colleagues were also disturbed by the Republican administration's efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which they said had benefited people living with HIV, and defund Planned Parenthood, which provides STD testing and support services.
"I don't think this administration understands much about health," she said. "The more people that get infected with HIV the longer it's going to take us to get over this epidemic."
Burley said he was pained by the president celebrating the passage of the Republican health care bill in the Rose Garden last month.
"Just the optics of the announcement in the Rose Garden, where you had very poor representation of people of color, of women, of people who don't have health insurance — a lot of smiles and grins like it was a celebration, when in fact we kind of set the country back," he said.
"It was a painful sight," Burley said, "and at that time Scott said, 'Listen guys, I can't do this anymore. Who's with me?'"
Both Bradley-Springer and Schoettes said they anguished over whether to resign or stay on and continue to try to achieve change from inside the government.
"There's a role to be played both inside and outside," said Schoettes. "But I am now empowered and emboldened to speak my mind and say what needs to be said."
Bradley-Springer said she wishes the best for her former colleagues who opted to stay on.
"It could be that they will make a difference and we do need intelligent people who know what they're doing," she said. "But I thought resigning could be a statement I'm personally making, and making it with a group is better than making it by myself."
One of those who opted to remain, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Professor Adaora Adimora, told BuzzFeed News she understood her colleagues' reasons for walking away: "People need to do what they feel led to do," she said.
"I decided to stay on because I thought that for me it would be best to use my voice from within the council to try to favorably impact policies that affect people with and at risk for HIV, health care providers, and public health," Adimora said.
Burley said he has received some criticism for his decision to resign, but that most of the feedback has been positive.
"People understand that we tried, and our work doesn't stop just because we aren't serving in this capacity. We will resist as long as we have to," he said. "I'm not against this president, but I'm against policies that will take our health care back."
This story has been updated to include comment from Adimora, Burley, and the White House.