Continuing their pressure on Governor Andrew Cuomo to add $70 million in AIDS spending to the budget for the state fiscal year that begins on April 1, roughly 30 AIDS activists took control of a suite near Cuomo’s office in Albany and began reading the names of the New Yorkers who have died from AIDS since 1981.
“We have been told by state troopers that at 7 o’clock when the session ends, the Capitol will be closed,” Jeremy Saunders, co-executive director at VOCAL-NY, told Gay City News by phone on March 28. “I told the state troopers that about 30 of us committed to staying overnight and about 10 who are committed to civil disobedience…It’s been a really emotional, powerful event.”
The activists plan on staying in the suite, dubbed the “war room,” until they have finished reading the names of the more than 100,000 New Yorkers who were felled by the disease. That could take until noon on March 29.
Activists have sought additional funds for the Plan to End AIDS. Of that amount, $20 million would fund programs at the AIDS Institute, a unit of the state health department, and $50 million would expand housing assistance, nutrition programs, and other efforts to aid people with HIV.
The protest is that latest escalation in a confrontation between AIDS groups and the governor. In 2014, Cuomo endorsed the Plan to End AIDS, which aims to reduce new HIV infections in the state from the current 3,000 a year to 750 annually by 2020. Over 90 percent of new HIV infections in New York occur in New York City.
Since 2014, the Cuomo administration has consistently underfunded the initiative, spending just an additional $10 million in the current fiscal year on top of the $2.5 billion the state spends every year for care for people with HIV. Most of that amount is spent through Medicaid, the government health plan for the poor.
Until recently, activists have been reluctant to criticize the governor.
In late 2015, comments by anonymous Cuomo aides in press reports led activists to believe that the administration would spend $200 million on the plan in the coming fiscal year, but when the budget was released on January 13, it showed that the $200 million would be spent in $40 million allotments over five years.
The plan will treat HIV-positive people with anti-HIV drugs so they are no longer infectious to others and give anti-HIV drugs to people who are negative to keep them uninfected. Having stable housing, nutrition, transportation, and other services helps HIV-positive people stay on their medication, so the plan also envisions expanding the availability of these services at the HIV/ AIDS Services Administration (HASA), a unit of the city’s Human Resources Administration, to people who are HIV-positive and poor. Currently, HASA only accepts clients with an AIDS diagnosis, which is an advanced stage of HIV infection that anti-HIV drugs have made increasingly rare.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has also endorsed the Plan to End AIDS, but his administration has said that the HASA expansion is conditional on the state providing some of the funding. The city estimates the expansion would cost $66 million in the first year and $90 million a year over five years after that, though presumably the cost would decline as new infections decline. The city and activists are asking that the state pay half. Of the $70 million ask, $33 million would pay for the HASA expansion and $17 million would pay for similar services upstate.
On March 21, a number of AIDS groups that helped write the plan held a press conference on the steps of City Hall and called on Cuomo to spend the $70 million. Charles King, the chief executive of Housing Works, an AIDS group, spoke at the event. King co-chaired the task force that drafted the plan and he has consistently defended Cuomo. However, at the March 21 press conference, he said, “This was the governor’s initiative and the governor needs to step up.”
Housing Works is known for its aggressive advocacy on behalf of people with HIV.
ACT UP, the AIDS activist group, protested Cuomo when he marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue. ACT UP was also represented on the task force that wrote the plan.
In a statement, the Albany protestors called on the governor and the State Legislature to fully fund the plan.
“We have the tools to end this epidemic,” the statement read. “In honor of those 100,000 who we have lost, in the face of the 129,000 New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS, and with recognition of the roughly 3,000 who will contract HIV annually if we do not act now, we must make our 2020 goal a reality. A $70 million investment now is a small price to pay to make sure the list of names of those we’ve lost that we read aloud today does not get any longer –– by saving lives and money in the months and years to come and finally achieving an AIDS-Free New York State.”