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Ending AIDS Advocates Ratchet Up Pressure on Cuomo

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harles King, the CEO of Housing Works, demanded that Governor Andrew Cuomo “step up” in the budget beginning on April 1. | COURTESY: VOCAL-NY
Charles King, the CEO of Housing Works, demanded that Governor Andrew Cuomo “step up” in the budget beginning on April 1. | COURTESY: VOCAL-NY

AIDS activists are pressing the Cuomo administration to commit to spending $70 million for the Plan to End AIDS in the state fiscal year that begins on April 1.

“This was the governor’s initiative and the governor needs to step up,” said Charles King, the chief executive of Housing Works, an AIDS group, at a March 21 press conference that was held at City Hall.

The plan, which aims to reduce new HIV infections from the current roughly 3,000 a year to 750 annually by 2020, was first endorsed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014. The plan relies on using anti-HIV drugs in HIV-negative people to keep them uninfected and treats HIV-positive people so they are no longer infectious. It also aims to increase housing and services for HIV-positive people because stable housing, nutrition, and other services can help them stay in treatment.

March 21 press conference asks for $70 million in budget year

The Cuomo administration has consistently underfunded the plan since the governor supported it with great fanfare. The administration added just $10 million to the budget for the state AIDS Institute in the current fiscal year. AIDS groups asked for roughly $100 million altogether. Last year, anonymous Cuomo staffers announced that the governor would spend $200 million on the plan in the coming fiscal year, or at least they created the impression that that amount would be spent. When the budget was proposed on January 13, it turned out the intention was to spend $40 million a year over each of five years.

Jawanza Williams, youth leader at VOCAL-NY, whose co-executive director, Jeremy Saunders, said advocates have gotten “no clear response” from the governor regarding funding of the Plan to End AIDS. | COURTESY: VOCAL-NY
Jawanza Williams, youth leader at VOCAL-NY, whose co-executive director, Jeremy Saunders, said advocates have gotten “no clear response” from the governor regarding funding of the Plan to End AIDS. | COURTESY: VOCAL-NY

Activists believe they have a commitment from the state to increase the AIDS Institute budget by another $10 million for a total of $20 million. They are asking for another $50 million in the next fiscal year.

Previously, the AIDS groups that drafted the plan –– King co-chaired the task force that wrote it –– were unwilling to criticize Cuomo over funding, but that changed this year. They have openly chastised the administration in press reports, and ACT UP, the AIDS activist group, protested Cuomo’s appearance in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade that takes Fifth Avenue every year.

The March 21 press conference was just the latest challenge to the Cuomo administration.

The de Blasio administration has agreed to fund a major item that activists have sought for years –– expanding the services at the city’s HIV/ AIDS Services Administration to people who are HIV-positive, but do not have an AIDS diagnosis. HASA delivers housing, nutrition, transportation, and other services to clients.

“The mayor has put money on the table,” said Ginny Shubert, a consultant with an expertise in developing and financing policies and programs that aid low-income people, at the press conference. “What we’re asking the state to do is to match that commitment.”

The city’s estimate is that this would cost $66 million in the first year and then $90 million a year over five years. The city wants to pay half the cost and have the state pick up the other half. Currently, the state pays for 22 percent of HASA’s $565 million annual budget.

“What the state has been resting on is the proportionality issue,” King said.

Advocates, including Amida Care, said the Plan to End AIDS depends on everyone being “all in.” | COURTESY: VOCAL-NY
Advocates, including Amida Care, said the Plan to End AIDS depends on everyone being “all in.” | COURTESY: VOCAL-NY

In press reports, the Cuomo administration has said that it spends roughly $2.5 billion annually on care for people with HIV. Most of that cash comes through Medicaid, the government run health plan for the poor that is jointly funded by the state and federal governments. Activists counter that by preventing new HIV infections, the plan will reduce costs over the long term for the state, saving an estimated $4.5 billion over five years.

“We’re not talking about uncapped expenses going into the future,” Shubert said. “We’re talking about making investments now that reap benefits.”

While AIDS groups are increasingly willing to criticize Cuomo, the press conference may have betrayed some reluctance to do that on the part of some groups that co-authored the plan. Gay Men’s Health Crisis sent Anthony Hayes, vice president of public affairs and policy, not Kelsey Louie, its chief executive, to speak. Similarly, the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS sent a staffer to read a statement from C. Virginia Fields, the agency’s president and CEO.

“We want to see everybody come together to end this epidemic,” Hayes said. “All the elected officials need to do their job and fund this blueprint.”

Other groups were not shy. Jim Eigo, an ACT UP member, spoke and VOCAL-NY aggressively promoted the press conference. Jeremey Saunders, a co-executive director at VOCAL-NY, also spoke.

“I would agree that they have been non-committal,” Saunders said of the Cuomo administration. “They’ve had no clear response as to why they’re not funding this.”

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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