Cuts to state HIV and AIDS programs will put thousands at risk

Timothy Andrews controls his HIV with the drug Atripla. The proposed cuts to AIDS programs would reduce funding that covers the cost of antiretroviral drugs. Photo by Lizzy Tomei/The Public Press.

Proposed cuts in funding to HIV and AIDS programs around the state could put thousands of lives at risk and set back years of progress fighting the disease, activists and service providers say.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest budget proposal would cut $80 million from the state Office of AIDS budget, reducing funding to prevention and testing programs and disease trend tracking by 80 percent. The cuts would also reduce funding for home care, cut the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) budget by $12.3 million, and eliminate the Therapeutic Monitoring Program, which pays for blood tests for people with HIV infection.

“This is a life or death issue,” said Debra Holtz, media relations manager at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. She added that the cuts could “reverse decades of progress” made reducing the rate of HIV and AIDS infection in California.

Cuts in state funding to ADAP, which subsidizes antiretroviral medication for people living with HIV and AIDS, would also jeopardize the millions of dollars in matching funds the program receives from the federal government and rebates from pharmaceutical companies, Holtz said. ADAP subsidizes the cost of drugs to some 35,000 Californians, according to the AIDS Foundation. The drugs are extremely expensive, so few could afford to pay for them on their own.

“They are shredding the safety net that so many of us are caught by, and that is no way to break a fall in hard times,” Jason Riggs, deputy director of the STOP AIDS Project, said at a Wednesday rally. Busloads of Sacramento-bound protesters made a pit-stop to rally at San Francisco’s City Hall on Wednesday morning before continuing on to the State Capitol building to lobby legislators.

An estimated 500 people from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and elsewhere converged at the State Capitol Wednesday to address legislators and voice opposition to the proposed cuts to HIV and AIDS programs. Momentum against the cuts has been building across the state in recent weeks since the governor released his revised budget proposal, which slashed an additional $55.5 million from HIV and AIDS funding. The previous budget draft had proposed cutting $24.6 million.

Grant Colfax, director of HIV Prevention and Research at the Department of Public Health, said that San Francisco HIV prevention stands to lose about $3 million from the state-level reductions, and that services in the city would be “greatly reduced” by the proposed cuts.

Lisa Page, a spokesperson for Schwarzenegger, said Wednesday that the governor acknowledges his proposed cuts to the Office of AIDS would hurt real people. “The governor understands that there will be impacts as a result of these difficult cuts, but with a $24 billion deficit, there are no good options,” Page said, adding that the governor has made difficult cuts in his latest budget that would have been “unthinkable” as recently as several months ago.

Robert Chase, left, and James Nykolay took a bus from San Francisco to Sacramento to rally at the State Capitol against proposed cuts to AIDS programs. Photo by Lizzy Tomei/The Public Press.

At the City Hall rally Wednesday, ADAP beneficiaries said they feared losing access to medication that has greatly improved their quality of life.

Timothy Andrews, 35, moved to San Francisco from Florida two years ago and was diagnosed as HIV-positive nine months ago. He said his antiretroviral medication, currently covered by ADAP, costs a whopping $1,829 each month — nearly three times what he earns as an in-home support provider to another person living with HIV.

“My net every month will not even cover 15 days of my meds,” Andrews said, adding that he also fears the loss of his employment through In-Home Support Services — yet another program on the state chopping block.

Andrews said that without prevention services, he believes HIV-positive rates will increase “substantially.”

Paul Pratt, a journalist and well-known local drag personality, is also an ADAP client. Pratt said his “quality of life has been dramatically improved” by the drugs, which have been effective in controlling his HIV. “I’m less prone to infection, or illness, or fatigue,” he said.

Pratt said that he braved identifying himself as HIV-positive at the Wednesday rally because the issue was too important to keep quiet about. “The problem with being quiet and silent is then nobody knows who’s being impacted,” he said. “There is a … certain feeling of satisfaction for standing up for what you know to be right.”

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