Edge Logo 3

California HIV/AIDS groups decry state budget cuts

By Peter Cassels, EDGE Contributor

October 13, 2010

California HIV/AIDS service organizations say state funding cuts in the 2011 budget Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed on Friday, Oct. 8, will have a severe impact on their ability to function.

Using the line-item veto, Schwarzenegger slashed nearly $60 million in HIV treatment, education and prevention programs from the $87.5 billion budget the state Legislature passed during a marathon overnight session that ended earlier the same day. Lawmakers restored cuts to services, including HIV/AIDS, made in the 2010 budget.

The action ended a months-long stalemate between the Democrat-controlled Legislature and the Republican governor.

The HIV funding cuts were part of nearly $1 billion in social service programs Schwarzenegger removed from the budget.

Either Democrat Jerry Brown or Republican Meg Whitman will replace the term-limited governor in January.

"Governor Schwarzenegger’s final actions in office were directed at making life more difficult for California’s working parents and the poorest, sickest and most elderly Californians," Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles) told the Los Angeles Times. "This is disappointing, but not surprising."

State Sen. Mark Leno [D-San Francisco] agreed.

"The governor’s $60 million veto of HIV and AIDS program funding will reverse decades of progress our state has made in addressing the epidemic," he said in an Oct. 12 statement. "The $7.6 million in cuts to the AIDS Drug Assistant Program means many Californians living with HIV or AIDS will not receive lifesaving medication. Tragically, many will die. The governor slashed funding for education and prevention while ironically leaving monies for surveillance and epidemiological studies. With these actions, at least we will know how many new infections occur and how many lives are lost from the governor’s misstep."

As EDGE previously reported, Schwarzenegger made the cuts even though a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released on Sept. 24 showed one out of five gay and bisexual men in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and 18 other major American cities live with HIV. Nearly 40 percent are unaware of their status.

Representatives of two major California HIV/AIDS service organizations EDGE interviewed said the budget cuts will be devastating.

"The ability to stay ahead of the epidemic has been substantially reduced," said Phil Curtis, government affairs director at AIDS Project Los Angeles, the city’s largest service provider.

Curtis said education and prevention, home-based care, early intervention, housing services and other programs outside the major cities that rely solely on state funding are enormous. "They have been wiped out," he said. "How many jurisdictions can kick in funds from elsewhere in their budgets is unknown." Given the dire straits local governments are in because of the recession, the chances are slim, Curtis added.

He reported public education programs have virtually disappeared in Los Angeles. "With rising infection rates among gay men and especially among gay men of color the calculus is pretty easy to do," explained Curtis. "You will eventually see increased infection rates."

Because the cuts were first made in the 2010 budget, APLA had already reduced its staff, which currently totals 120. "We lost about 20 percent of our employees," said Curtis. "That translates to cutbacks and longer waits for service."

He added the agency’s home care program for those too ill to leave their homes and in danger of institutionalization was particularly hard hit.

Aaron Fox, state government affairs specialist at APLA, gave EDGE an example: "We had a call from a woman whose father had just been discharged from the hospital and was extremely ill. The choice was either he stayed at home or she had to move him home with her and her children. She had to do the latter."

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation is that city’s largest service provider. It operates prevention, housing and substance abuse services, a needle exchange, HIV testing and some support group services.

Courtney Mulhern-Pearson, director of state and local affairs at SFAF, said the biggest impact of the state budget cuts has been the elimination of its hotline, which volunteers had staffed.

"The state took over the contract July 1," Mulhern-Pearson said, noting the hotline had received more than 70,000 calls and e-mails a year from people throughout California, across the nation and even around the world. "The hotline’s capacity decreased. It’s not receiving the same amount of resources."

Although the agency hasn’t had to reduce its staff of more than 80 because of the state budget cuts, SFAF previously went through a couple of rounds of layoffs because the worsening economy had caused a drop in contributions.

Mulhern-Pearson confirmed what Curtis reported. "What happened last year was that statewide a number of programs have had to close," she said. "To give just a few examples, there also are less resources for home care services, and a decrease in HIV testing capacity and in the number of test kits."

While California HIV/AIDS service organizations face many challenges going forward, there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

The fact the Legislature put HIV/AIDS funding back in the budget before Schwarzenegger took it out again is a good sign, according to Mulhern-Pearson."When we have a new governor we will have a better chance of getting that funding restored," she said. "I think that health care reform potentially will help relieve some of the burden, too."

Curtis said APLA hopes to step up advocacy efforts and also is looking forward to a new administration in Sacramento in 2011.

"We hope to have better luck with this budget then," he said. "The California budget is in the tank and we haven’t had success. We just keep at it. We try to be nimble, shift funding streams and survive. We’ve seen a number of smaller agencies close."

Mulhern-Pearson echoed these concerns. "We have to think outside the box and be resourceful and creative," she said.

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is pcassels@edgepublications.com.