The Community Speaks Out Against the NYC Department of Health Cuts to HIV/AIDS Programs
The email from my friend, Osvaldo Perdamo, had a plaintive note to it -- an unusual tone for this usually confident, positive friend to take.
Perdamo is an AIDS activist and a facilitator for a group sponsored by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City for the newly HIV/AIDS diagnosed. He tells me there are three groups at a time, which last 12 weeks, with typically eight people in each group. That's almost 100 people a year who are provided basic tools to help them live with this disease. His program is one of the many in New York City that has been on the fiscal chopping block since late November 2011. His email was an invitation to a forum that was held on Feb. 22 at the Center to try to formulate a defense of the community.
"We learned in December 2011 that we will likely receive a 50-percent funding cut in our HIV prevention services for youth in July from DOHMH [the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene]," said Cindi Creager, the Center's communications director. She added, "This [means] fewer young LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people will receive proven, life-saving HIV prevention messages." The Center serves an average of 1,000 young people each year.
Advocates claim that there was no warning that these cuts were on the horizon. They were unilaterally made by the DOHMH. No one truly knows what ratiocinative process the decision makers employed to come up with these cuts. These choices were made behind closed doors -- no public hearings, no consultation with the experts in the trenches of the fight against the disease.
The Center wasn't alone in receiving substantial cuts. Eight other organizations were informed by letter that their budgets would be cut by 50 percent. Iris House, Gay Men of African Descent, Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and the Latino Commission on AIDS were on that list. According to Gay City News, Thomas Farley, the city's health commissioner, wrote to one city organization:
In the past five years, city tax levy funding for HIV prevention has decreased by almost $8 million, with another loss of more than $11 million in HIV prevention-related City Council funding. While the behavioral risk reduction category was largely spared the most severe budget reductions required in mid-2011, this category could no longer be spared when we were required to make cuts in the 2012 budget.
To address this egregious move as a community, the Feb. 22 public forum was held at the Center. Ironically, even people who work at the DOHMH were disgusted by what was happening. A DOHMH official who attended the forum on his own time decried the "lack of transparency in the decision-making process." This official (who, fearing harassment, requested that his name not be used) noted that even the input of DOHMH staff working with the community was not solicited. There was "no alignment between policy makers and those affected by their decisions." He went on to say the DOHMH is "crippling the community's ability to have a voice."
The next day, over the phone, we continued the conversation. This DOHMH official, a veteran of the epidemic, spoke candidly, admitting that the DOHMH record has "never been stellar." (Remember the "It's Never Just HIV Campaign?") His anger was palpable when he warned, "We'll return to the early days with more sick people," because the plan is to segue to privatization. He recalled that for 25 years HIV funding was sacrosanct. "If you were looking over the last 10 years, you saw this coming; that train has left the station." He notes that programs have been "flat funded" for the last decade, without even cost-of-living supplements.
In real dollars, that adds up to a hefty cut in itself.
Even New York City's most senior elected officers were not privy to this process. A spokesperson for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn acknowledges her office learned of the DOHMH's decision from the AIDS service organizations. Outraged, Quinn persuaded the DOHMH to suspend any increases in funding cuts during the 2012 fiscal year, which ends in June of this year. For the moment, at least, she has managed to reduce the draconian 50-percent cuts in education and prevention to a still painful 25 percent. Her office further states that Quinn has demanded and taken the lead in transparency in the DOHMH and all New York City deliberations on HIV/AIDS budgetary issues.
In the meantime, the DOHMH told the organizations that they could turn to private resources to make up the loss. GMHC's Chief Operating Officer, Janet Weinberg, scoffs at that suggestion. "They originally gave us 16 days notice," she said. "It takes three to four months to draft a grant request." It seems reasonable to assume that it could take a year to secure whatever private funds are available in these tight economic times.
Weinberg warns that services for at-risk women will be severely limited and there will be cuts to some of GMHC's harm reduction programs for the newly diagnosed. Women are one of the fastest growing HIV/AIDS populations. These programs help hundreds of women learn "how to negotiate safe sex," and are necessary given how women "are so fragile," Weinberg told me.
And they are.
In the early days of the epidemic in New York City, women accounted for only 10 percent of the HIV/AIDS population. Now, one in three people living with HIV/AIDS is a woman. And of those women, 90 percent are either African American or Latina. GMHC's harm reduction programs for women focus on prevention by discovering "what the risks are to a person and learning how to decrease them," Weinberg explains.
Greg, not his real name, is a 49-year-old educator who found himself at the Center when he was diagnosed in 2002, soon after 9/11.
He told me, "I thought the world was about to end."
For him, the Center "was the place to go." He was living with both a substance abuse addiction and a sex addiction. The Center's programs gave him a grounding that allowed him to succeed more in life and at work. Not to mention, he became one of the top AIDS Walk fundraisers and a leader in his group.
I admit that his testimonial may sound like a late-night infomercial, but his story really does embody the impact that these programs have on the people who need them most. Without these safe havens and programs, one can only imagine what will happen to people such as Greg.
"What are the city's priorities?" asks Weinberg rhetorically. "What's the message? Just throw a bunch of pills at the problem, or educate and maximize the whole person?"
Roger Kimpton is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He has been published extensively in the Web magazine Grandparents.com, as well as The New York Post, Palisade Magazine and Jersey City Magazine. Roger lives in Manhattan with his wife, Cheryl.