BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | A town hall organized by ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group demonstrated the growing anger with the de Blasio administration and the city’s health department over what activists say is their failure to respond to rising sexually transmitted diseases and new HIV infections among the city’s gay and bisexual men.
“Bill de Blasio, take public health in New York City off the starvation diet that Michal Bloomberg put it on,” said Jim Eigo, an ACT UP member, at the September 1 meeting at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.
Roughly 170 people attended the town hall, which was a mix of fervent advocacy and data that was displayed via PowerPoint on a large screen above the heads of the evening’s principal speakers.
ACT UP, Treatment Action Group charge de Blasio administration with laggard health outreach to gay, bi men
Activists charge that visits to the city’s eight currently-operating sexually transmitted disease clinics have declined by 18 percent since the health department shuttered the clinic in Chelsea in March for a two-year renovation. The Chelsea clinic had more annual visits than any other clinic and accounted for 20 to 25 percent of visits to all nine clinics in recent years. With its high volume and with many gay and bisexual men using the clinic, it was expected to play a central role in the Plan to End AIDS.
That plan, which aims to reduce new HIV diagnoses in the state from the current 3,000 annually to 750 a year by 2020, envisions using anti-HIV drugs in HIV-positive people to make them no longer infectious and in HIV-negative people to keep them from becoming infected. People who test HIV-positive and HIV-negative people who have a sexually transmitted disease at the city clinics could be candidates for these anti-HIV drug regimens. This requires more HIV testing and more screening for sexually transmitted diseases, actions that the city is doing less of than in the past, activists say.
Cuts in the city’s own HIV testing and its funding for HIV testing by outside contractors eliminated 400,000 HIV tests between 2010 and 2014, according to a report by James Krellenstein, an ACT UP member. Krellenstein presented some of his data at the town hall. He said that the city health department had also adopted a policy of not giving HIV tests to people who had a test within three months of a clinic visit.
“It’s time that we realized that we have the ability to end this epidemic,” Krellenstein said. “The end is in sight, but we cannot do it if our community is silent… This is homophobia in terms of public health.”
Activists and the city appeared to have reached an agreement in June to replace the services lost when the Chelsea clinic closed, but the town hall clearly showed that any deal has collapsed. Krellenstein and Mark Harrington, the director of the Treatment Action Group, spoke at the town hall and they had earlier endorsed the June agreement.
City Councilmember Corey Johnson, who is gay, HIV-positive, and represents Chelsea and other neighborhoods, brokered that earlier deal. He said that the Bloomberg administration cut the city health department’s budget by $200 million and that money has not been restored.
The city budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1, had $5 million for the Plan to End AIDS, with $1.1 million coming from the de Blasio administration and $3.9 million contributed in City Council discretionary funds. Johnson said in July that it may be possible to add more funds for the plan later in the fiscal year during budget modifications, which typically occur in November or December.
“We are continuing to push and push and push,” Johnson said during the town hall.
Activists said Dr. Mary Bassett, the city’s health commissioner, and two senior health department staffers, Dr. Sue Blank and Dr. Jay Varma, were asked to attend the town hall as was Mayor Bill de Blasio or someone from his office. Empty chairs with their names and pictures on them sat at the front of the room.
While some elected officials sent representatives, the only other elected official to attend was Public Advocate Letitia James.
“This administration has reversed the policies of the prior administration on a wide range of issues,” James said as she gestured toward the chair that held de Blasio’s picture. “The question is why not on healthcare? Crucial funding on HIV testing has been cut and never restored. The question is why?”
Following the town hall, a group of roughly 50 marched through Chelsea to the clinic at Ninth Avenue and 28th Street chanting, “Mayor de Blasio, open your eyes, STIs are on the rise” and “AIDS and syphilis on the rise, Mayor de Blasio open your eyes.”
The health department did not respond to a request for comment in time for the print edition but did later send the following statement: “These claims are misleading. Mayor de Blasio has added $1.1 million a year for STD clinics to enhance services for men who have sex with men. There was also nearly $4 million in the budget, thanks to the City Council, to end the epidemic. The estimated proportion of NYC residents ever tested for HIV has increased (see attached chart). The Chelsea Clinic is only one component of the City’s extensive services for people at risk for STDs and HIV. In 2014, approximately 95% of all STD diagnoses in New York City were made at a clinic other than the Chelsea Clinic, and more than 80% of Chelsea residents with an STD were diagnosed at another clinic. The Chelsea Clinic is important, but a temporary closure to support renovation, combined with extensive auxiliary services during the renovation, will not hinder the City’s ability to end the AIDS epidemic.”
A health department spokesperson explained that the percentages of STD diagnoses cited in its response refer to all diagnoses, whether completed in the nine city clinics or at any other medical facility.