What a difference a decade makes

A Democratic Congresswoman and a former Republican Senator aren’t afforded many opportunities to work together. Especially at a time of fiscal crisis when every dollar is scrutinized and fought over, partisanship pushes us into opposite corners. But we agree on a program that truly has bipartisan support, saves millions of lives a year, and contributes directly to stability, security and economic growth worldwide.

Ten years ago this May, when the AIDS pandemic was at its worst, ravaging many African countries and a sure death sentence for millions, our country responded in an unprecedented way. We both, along with the late Republican Congressman Henry Hyde and the late Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos, worked with the Congressional Black Caucus and a bipartisan group of legislators to address this enormous problem. Soon after, in 2003, then-President George W. Bush instated PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, pledging $15 billion over five years to combat the spread of HIV, prevent further infections and improve access to care for millions of people across the globe.  Each year since then, Congress, with bipartisan support, has stood behind the program, providing critical funding to enable PEPFAR to truly help change the trajectory of the AIDS epidemic.

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Now, a decade later, PEPFAR’s success isn’t just measured in dollars spent, but in lives saved and communities improved. The Institute of Medicine called the program “transformational” in global health.

PEPFAR has directly supported life-saving antiretroviral treatment for nearly 5.1 million men, women and children around the world, and is helping prevent hundreds of thousands of mother-to-child transmissions, an essential step toward achieving an AIDS-free generation. Engaging women is crucial to the broader goal; about half of the people living with HIV worldwide are women, and their empowerment is critical to beating this disease. PEPFAR supported HIV testing and counseling for more than 11 million pregnant women in 2012 alone.

Because of PEPFAR, we’re not just working toward an AIDS-free generation, we’re achieving an AIDS-free generation.

All around the world, PEPFAR is caring both for the health of the individual and the health of communities. The medications and programs supported by PEPFAR are so effective that people living with HIV/AIDS are doing just that — living. Infected individuals can care for their families and hold jobs. Communities enjoy economic stability. The United States earns a positive reputation.

But we are at a tipping point to truly realize this vision. If we back away now, the gains we’ve made will evaporate; the success we’ve had will disappear. Support of PEPFAR now is as important as it was 10 years ago.

HIV is a virus, not an ideology. Democrats and Republicans should be proud of PEPFAR’s legacy and continue to support it moving forward, providing the program with the robust funding it still needs to help achieve an AIDS-free generation.

Lee serves on the House Committee on the Budget and the House Appropriations subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, and is founding co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus and represents the United States on the United Nations’ Global Commission on HIV and the Law. Frist is adjunct professor of surgery at Vanderbilt and Meharry medical schools and former majority leader of the U.S. Senate.