Democrats Are Pushing Biden to Let HIV-Positive Americans Join the Military

Member of the first satellite team to treat service members living with HIV.
A petty officer for Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune's Community Health Clinic is part of the first satellite team to treat service members living with HIV, Oct 6, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by NMCCL Public Affairs)

A group of Democratic lawmakers is urging President Joe Biden to allow Americans who have tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to enlist in the military.

The Pentagon announced earlier this year that HIV-positive troops will no longer be involuntarily separated or barred from deployment, but it kept restrictions on those with the virus enlisting or commissioning into the military.

Now, Democratic lawmakers say the Biden administration must "follow to its conclusion the path set forth" by its new policy and allow the enlistment or appointment of Americans living with HIV.

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"Just as it abandoned the defense of discriminatory restrictions on service members living with HIV, we ask your administration to abandon these excuses for continuing to prevent people living with HIV who are stabilized in treatment from joining the U.S. military," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Biden on Wednesday.

Two separate but identical letters were sent by six senators led by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Chris Coons, D-Del., and 34 House members led by Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.; Sara Jacobs, D-Calif.; and Barbara Lee, D-Calif.

HIV emerged in the 1980s, and its initial concentration in LGBTQ communities led people to stigmatize the disease. Since then, treatments have been developed that can lower the viral load to a level that is undetectable in tests, which also prevents transmission, and those with the virus can live long, otherwise healthy lives.

The Pentagon's June announcement came after an April court ruling that prevented the Pentagon from discharging service members or denying them commissions based solely on their HIV infection status.

While the Justice Department had argued transmission of HIV on the battlefield continues to be a danger despite new treatments lowering the risk of transmission, the Clinton-appointed judge in the case ruled that the Defense Department's policy was "at odds with current medical evidence concerning HIV treatment and transmission."

The military had a "policy for which there is no rational basis," U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema wrote in her April 22 decision.

The Pentagon's new policy specifically allows current troops who are asymptomatic and have an undetectable viral load to continue serving and deploying, as well as to commission.

About 2,000 service members are HIV-positive and approximately 350 are newly diagnosed each year, according to data from advocacy group Lambda Legal and the Congressional Research Service. An estimated 1.2 millions Americans aged 13 and older had HIV as of 2019, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Opponents of restrictions on military service for people with HIV argue that, in addition to being outdated because of advancements in treatment, such policies are discriminatory since they disproportionately affect LGBTQ people and people of color.

In their letter to Biden, the Democratic lawmakers applauded the June policy change. But they also said arguments for keeping restrictions on enlistment, such as health care costs and speculation that people with HIV will join the military to receive health care, "are not worthy of this administration's support."

The Biden administration made those arguments in its defense against the lawsuits over the old policy, with the Justice Department writing in a court filing that "treatment and annual clinical monitoring of a well-managed HIV patient represents a significant cost burden" and that "this cost was considered in the development of the accessions medical standards for HIV."

In addition to HIV, the lawmakers also pushed Biden to lift restrictions on deployments and enlistment for people with hepatitis B, or HBV. Those restrictions, they argued, are "even less justifiable" than the ones for HIV since there is an effective hepatitis B vaccine required for everyone in the military that "reduces even the merely theoretical risk of battlefield transmission to near zero."

"For far too long, people living with HIV and HBV have faced harmful and discriminatory policies in our armed forces that create unnecessary barriers to serve," the senators said in a statement released alongside the letter. "The current policy banning these individuals from enlisting or joining a commissioning program is outdated and without merit, and does not reflect the military's commitment to equality, diversity, and the inclusion of all races, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations in service."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct how many senators signed the letter.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: HIV Status Will No Longer Automatically Disqualify Troops from Deployment, Retention

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