Around the U.S., states cut funding for AIDS

By Don Sapatkin, Inquirer Staff Writer

March 20, 2010

Funds for AIDS programs around the country are being cut, for two and perhaps three years in a row, as states wrestle with shrinking tax revenues in the recession.

California, perhaps the hardest-hit, slashed $85 million last year, reducing its grants to Los Angeles by nearly half. People were on waiting lists for drug assistance programs in at least nine states, officials told Senate staffers at a briefing in Washington in January, due to a combination of budget cuts and growing needs as a result of the economy.

But prevention programs are usually the first to go because they are harder to quantify. “Drugs and doctors’ visits you can count and explain why it is important,” said Laura Hanen, director of government relations for the National Alliance of State & Territorial AIDS Directors.

Reductions have been coming in waves throughout the fiscal year as deficits are reassessed, and are expected to continue in the year that begins July 1, Hanen said. "The problem is, if the state whacked your funding last year there is nothing left to whack. We expect it to be bad,"

AIDS Project Los Angeles, the largest services provider in the county, cut 22 percent of its staff, abandoned a new wellness center project, reduced various programs and services, and eliminated treatment education entirely after losing nearly $2 million in state and local funds last July.

As a result, said Phil Curtis, director of government affairs, “there is an ongoing squeeze between an ever-growing need for medical care and treatment, and for support services, including prevention.”

He said bigger jurisdictions, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, got hit harder by the state’s cuts than did communities that had no other sources of funding.

That is the case in Pennsylvania as well, where Philadelphia is losing more than 30 percent of its state prevention funding, all of it targeted for high-risk minority communities. Just over half of all people in the state with HIV or AIDS live in the city, but Harrisburg is sending a bit less than half of its prevention dollars to Philadelphia.

Money for support groups and testing is expected to be cut statewide in the new fiscal year, said Janice Kopelman, a deputy secretary for health promotion and disease prevention in the Pennsylvania Department of Health. “We are hoping for the best and planning for the worst,” she said.

In New Jersey, Gov. Christie made steep cuts in many departments but proposed modest increases in funding for AIDS programs next year.

Small increases are also included in President Obama’s budget request – although not nearly enough to make up for shortfalls in the states, as some advocates have requested.

While HIV/AIDS programs are funded by various dedicated budget categories at both the state and federal levels, they also play a significant role in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Rates of STDs have been rising nationally for several years, and Philadelphia reported a 45 percent increase in cases of primary and secondary syphilis in 2009. Cases among women, who make up less than 10 percent of the total, spiked 240 percent last year.

The city has taken a number of steps to try to slow transmission. At the same time, however, it has been forced to kill all risk-reduction support groups that were funded by the state.

“if you don’t put the dollars into doing prevention activities and services and making sure you find out if people are sick or at risk, then the epidemic can go out of control,” warned Jane Shull, executive director of Philadelphia FIGHT, an AIDS services organization that offered some of the programs.