AIDS Advocates Race to Secure Funding

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved the End The Epidemic blueprint in April last year, vowing to eradicate AIDS in New York by 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved the End The Epidemic blueprint in April last year, vowing to eradicate AIDS in New York by 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

AIDS advocacy groups have less than two weeks left to convince Governor Cuomo to increase funding for a robust plan to combat AIDS, before the state budget for 2016-2017 is finalized and the new fiscal year begins on April 1.

End AIDS NY 2020 Community Coalition, a group of 90 organizations, is ramping up the pressure on the governor this week, organizing a series of events statewide, including a rally in front of New York City Hall on Monday and a gathering in the Legislative Office Building in Albany the next day.

Activists were disappointed when the governor committed $200 million for a plan to eradicate AIDS by 2020 last November and later said the money would be spread across five years, equating to $40 million a year. This amount was further reduced to $10 million for the upcoming year after Governor Cuomo released his budget proposal in January.

“Governor Cuomo has been leading the way in this and has made a number of public commitments and now it’s time for him to put his money where his mouth is and see it through,” said Elizabeth Koke, a representative for Housing Works, one of the organizations that have been lobbying to increase the funding. “There is a frustration that this money isn’t already there to be in the budget.”

The state already spends $2.5 billion a year on AIDS-related services. AIDS advocates say the current proposed increase falls short of what they were promised, and while they regret that Cuomo backtracked on an additional annual investment of $200 million, they are willing to compromise and accept $70 million for next year.

“We really need this minimum amount of money in this budget’s season to keep this plan rolling,” said Koke.

According to the New York City Aids Memorial, there are 129,000 people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in New York State, and 80 percent live in New York City.

Cuomo’s plan to end the AIDS epidemic in New York by 2020 was first announced in June 2014 and aims to reduce the number of new HIV infections to 750 per year and subsequently to zero. Last April, a task force of 63 experts appointed by the governor issued several recommendations, including doubling the number of people on antiretroviral medication, expanding access to HIV-prevention drugs and reinforcing routine testing. The report also emphasized the need to increase housing resources for low-income New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS.

Of the $70 million advocates have requested for next year, $50 million would be allocated to expand housing services and rental assistance to at least 13,000 HIV-positive New Yorkers.

“It’s an absolute imperative,” said Jawanza Williams, youth community organizer at Vocal-NY, one of main organizers of Monday’s rally in New York. “Even if you cannot fund the whole budget, at least make this significant investment in housing.”

Combating homelessness is a central component in the group’s demands, as stable housing can help people follow their treatment and therefore contain contagion. Medication can suppress HIV and bring it to a low, “invisible” threshold, where the person still carries the virus but is not contagious.

“For people who are HIV positive, they need to be virally suppressed. They cannot become virally suppressed if they are not stably housed,” said Williams.

Fulfilling the blueprint would not only save lives but would also benefit the state’s finances, advocates say.

“We can spend fewer dollars now to house people who have the virus, connect them to care and support them in adhering to medication that makes the virus so low we call it ‘suppressed’,” said Doug Wirth, president and chief executive of Amida Care, a not-for-profit health care organization.

For every new person infected, the government will incur $400,000 to $500,000 on health spending costs, said Wirth, who was on the task force. Implementing the blueprint could save New Yorkers roughly $6 billion, he said.

In a statement sent to The Ink NYC on Tuesday, Cuomo’s office emphasized his dedication to the cause.

“No one is more committed to ending HIV/AIDS than Governor Cuomo, who with a $2.5 billion annual investment, has made New York State a national leader by pledging to end the epidemic by 2020 and providing quality support services to those impacted by the disease,” the statement said.

 Other members of the AIDS coalition have emphasized that they hold all state legislators responsible for the plan’s progress.

“We certainly want everyone else in Albany to understand that it’s not only the governor that the activists are going to hold accountable, but that it’s the assembly and senate as well,” said Anthony Hayes, vice president of public affairs and policy at Gay Men’s Health Crisis.