Council OKs HIV Cuts

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | The City Council passed a 2009 budget on June 29 that succeeded only in reducing the cuts to HIV services made by the Bloomberg administration and did not maintain any funding for hepatitis C and crystal meth programs.

“We are happy that we were able to at least make a partial restoration in the HIV outreach area,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn just before she joined New York City's annual gay pride march on Fifth Avenue. “We wish we could have done more… All of us in government, in the HIV/AIDS community, in the healthcare community, are going to have to come together and try to find ways to do more with less.”

Budget Restores Just $5.8 MM of Mayor's $10.1 MM Slash.

While AIDS advocates and the city agree that health department HIV dollars are reduced in the $59.1 billion budget, there is no agreement on how large a reduction the budget contains.

In its proposed budget, the Bloomberg administration claimed a cut of $1.3 million in city health department spending for “HIV/AIDS service contracts and our rapid test kit distribution to local hospitals,” according to a May 7 health department statement.

But a city budget document showed a $4.5 million drop in the city's contribution to health department spending on AIDS from $13.3 million to $8.8 million, or a 34 percent cut. Prior to publication of an earlier story in Gay City News, the health department did not respond to requests seeking an explanation of the discrepancy.

The overall health department budget for HIV prevention and treatment, which includes city, state, and federal dollars, went from $214 million in the 2008 fiscal year to $172 million in 2009 though, in a response reported in an earlier story, the department said some of the state and federal funds would be restored.

City Council officials put the reduction in health department AIDS spending at $10.1 million and said the Council restored $5.8 million for a total reduction of $4.3 million.

On July 1, Housing Works, an AIDS group, released an analysis of the budget that put the health department HIV cuts at $4.8 million and reported that hepatitis C and crystal meth programs at that agency had been eliminated entirely.

The reduced funds, whatever the amount, come as the health department is reporting increases in new HIV diagnoses among young gay men of color and a 60 percent increase in syphilis cases in 2007 over 2006 among all gay and bisexual men in the city.

City dollars for sexually transmitted disease services increased in the proposed 2009 budget from $5.5 million to $5.9 million, but with state and federal cuts the overall budget for the services declined from $15.9 million to $14.4 million. One position was eliminated in sexually transmitted disease services.

Earlier this year, AIDS and gay groups asked the City Council to add $5.5 million to the budget to address HIV among African-American, Latino, Asian-American, and Native-American men who have sex with men.

What may also hurt AIDS groups is a reduction in the discretionary funds that members of the Council distribute to organizations in their districts.

“We cut back on the Council's internal budget by eight percent and discretionary funding by eight percent,” said Quinn, an out lesbian who represents Chelsea.

Some AIDS groups seemed resigned to the cuts.

“I think it is unfortunate given the epidemic that we have,” said Soraya Elcock, deputy director of policy and government affairs at Harlem United, an AIDS group. “It's clearly about needing additional resources to address all the issues in the city.”

Dr. Marjorie J. Hill, chief executive officer of Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), had a similar view.

“In 2008, at a time when HIV rates are increasing in our city and our country, in particular among [men who have sex with men] of color and women of color, I am disappointed that the city leadership could not do more for HIV,” she said as she waited to join the pride march.

The City Council approved the budget in a rare weekend session to make the July 1 start of the 2009 fiscal year. The vote, 49-to-1, had only Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron voting no.

Housing Works, which has long been known for its aggressive advocacy, was distributing a flyer during the pride march, the day of the vote, that read, “Speaker Christine Quinn Stands Still on AIDS.”

Charles R. Long, a spokesman for the group, said, “We're highly upset about it. We think it's ridiculous when the rates in the city are going up… It's egregious.”