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Screenings for sexually transmitted infections don’t routinely test for HIV in Texas. A House bill could change that.

By Alex Nguyen, The Texas Tribune

Screenings for sexually transmitted infections don’t routinely test for HIV in Texas. A House bill could change that.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A bill requiring health care providers to offer HIV tests as part of routine sexually transmitted infection screenings has been preliminarily approved by the Texas House on Thursday.

House Bill 3377 is authored by freshman state Rep. Venton Jones, a Dallas Democrat who is the first Black, gay and openly HIV-positive lawmaker to serve at the Capitol. The House voted 104-39 to swiftly pass the bill, which had garnered widespread bipartisan support long before it came to the chamber floor.

“If we are to end HIV in the state of Texas, it’s important that patients are afforded the opportunity to receive an HIV test when they receive typical STI screenings,” Jones said. “One thing just to note for importance [is] that 12 people are diagnosed with HIV every day.”

Since the early 1980s, the HIV epidemic has affected a broad swath of society. But it has particularly devastated the LGBTQ community, especially those who are Black and Latino. Heterosexual and cisgender people from these groups are also disproportionately affected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that Black and Latino Americans in general saw the highest numbers of HIV diagnoses between January 2021 and June 2022.

HIV assaults the immune system — though the patient may see subtle, flu-like symptoms at first, or none at all. This can prevent them from recognizing and asking for testing early on, while making it more likely for them to involuntarily transmit the virus. If left untreated for years, HIV can turn into AIDS, and the patient’s severely weakened immune system is exposed to opportunistic infections.

With medications like PrEP available, the epidemic has become less dangerous. Still, testing remains a key step in preventing and treating HIV. The CDC recommends that people between the ages of 13 and 64 test at least once, and those with certain risk factors do so at minimum once a year.

But general STI evaluations don’t always include HIV testing — a gap that Jones said surprised him and many other stakeholders.

“This leads to confusion because most individuals assume that HIV tests are included as a standard part of STI panels,” he said during the bill’s committee hearing on April 3. “There’s an urgent need to end this epidemic and expand access and awareness to HIV testing.”

HB 3377 would require health care providers to offer it, though patients can opt out if they want. The proposal has received overwhelming support from medical groups.

“The addition of an HIV test to a routine STI panel is a public health investment,” said Januari Fox, director of policy advocacy and community engagement for Prism Health North Texas. “It eliminates preconceived notions of who is or isn’t affected by HIV and quickly moves the newly diagnosed into treatment.”

LGBTQ advocates similarly cheer the legislation.

“Rep. Jones’ lived experience offers Texans a critically necessary perspective,” Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, said Thursday. “Representation matters.”

At the same time, Jones is carrying House Bill 2235, which would mandate the inclusion of HIV testing in routine medical evaluations though patients can similarly choose to opt out. It has already received broad support from the public and Republican House members, being just one co-author shy of what his other bill has. HB 2235 is currently in the Calendars committee.

“We’ve come a long way,” Cypress Republican state Rep. Tom Oliverson, a joint author on both bills, said during their committee hearing last month while reflecting on his time as a medical student in the 1990s. He now works as an anesthesiologist. “Bills like this are important to me because we’re finally shedding that stigma.”

Disclosure: Equality Texas and Prism Health North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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