Health Care

U.S. reps pressing Scott on sudden drop in new HIV cases in state

wmichot@miamiherald.com

Eleven members of Florida’s Congressional Delegation are pressing Gov. Rick Scott to explain how the state changed its count of new HIV cases amid a controversy over the numbers.

The congressmen, a mix of Democrats and Republicans representing districts from North Florida to the Keys, sent Scott a letter Thursday demanding to know why the state health department revised the number of new infections reported in 2014 from 6,147 to 4,613.

A Tampa Bay Times analysis found the 25 percent adjustment was much larger than any adjustment made in recent years. Miami-Dade and Broward counties were Nos. 1 and 2 in the U.S. in new HIV infections in 2014 per 100,000 residents, according to state and federal data.

“The large data revision combined with these vague and imprecise explanations has created uncertainty regarding the true status of new HIV infections in Florida, as well as questions regarding (the Florida Department of Health’s) competency and transparency,” the members of Congress wrote.

Statistical integrity, they added, has “vital ramifications for Florida and our nation.”

“The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), in particular, uses the data collected by each state to compile national statistics, and this data influences resource allocation and grant funding, as well as response actions,” they wrote.

Earlier in the day, state health officials released some more detailed information about a process known as “de-duplication,” which they say helps explain the changes.

Health Department spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said the CDC had recently changed the criteria for identifying cases that may have been counted twice or in two different states, causing Florida to have to sift through more records.

The process takes months, she said. Data from 2014 won’t be finalized until June 30 of this year.

Despite the new details, the health department has failed to explain how each infection was either reclassified or removed from the rolls. What’s more, the department has declined to make interim state Surgeon General Celeste Philip or anybody in the HIV/AIDS department available for an interview.

Florida’s HIV statistics have been the subject of intense scrutiny since January, when a spike in the number of new cases diagnosed in 2014 cost then-Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong his job.

The new, lower figures were published around the same time.

Last month, a Times analysis found the adjustment was twice as large as any adjustment made in the past decade. The Times also found that Florida had changed the annual counts dating back more than a decade, removing more than 7,000 cases from the rolls.

The analysis prompted U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, to call for a federal investigation. Castor cited “widespread questions over the accuracy of the HIV/AIDS numbers in Florida” in her letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell.

Castor was among the 11 members of Congress who signed the letter to Scott on Thursday. She was joined by Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ted Deutch, Alcee Hastings, Patrick Murphy, Lois Frankel and Frederica Wilson, and Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo and Ted Yoho.

The members of Congress asked Scott for specific information on what evidence had been used to justify the revisions. They also wanted to know how many cases had been shifted to other states or reporting years.

“We hope that you will conduct a thorough examination of Florida’s new HIV infection rate data and make it publicly available, to ensure that this critical information has been accurately and transparently recorded, reported and revised,” they wrote.

They pointed out that Florida continues to be a national leader in terms of new infections.

“Floridians deserve clarification on how (the Florida Department of Health) records, reports, and revises public health data, especially with respect to new HIV infections in our state,” they wrote.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.\

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