Project ABLE Calls for Restoration of Funding on HIV Testing Day
National Day of HIV Testing, held on January 24, was a day of reflection, tribute and pleas for Massachusetts state legislators, lobbyists and HIV/AIDS advocate groups. More than 200 people attended a lobbying effort lead by Project ABLE for critical restoration of state and federal funding to the state's AIDS Line Item (4512-0103).
To kick off the event, an award was presented to John Auerbach, director of the Urban Health Research Institute at Northeastern University, for his many years of public healthcare service and civic leadership. Auerbach, in September 2012, resigned as the state's Public Health Commissioner. His resignation was fallout from allegations of actions taken in a laboratory deemed unbecoming the essence of public health.
His legacy seemingly far outweighs any perceived impropriety, as noted by the warm response from the crowd during the presentation of the award.
"His commitment to social justice and his appreciation of HIV/AIDS being the central health issue of our time has allowed HIV advocacy to flourish," said Leslie Laurie, president of Tapestry Health, before handing Auerbach the award.
With Governor Deval Patrick's fiscal budget banked at $34 billion, and in which level-funds HIV/AIDS, the State House buzzed with boisterous excitement as speakers pleaded residents to "share their personal stories" with state representatives to help secure an additional $4 million, bringing the ALI to just over $36 million for FY14. Facing a $2 million reduction in federal funding, and with the combined $5.5 million reduction between FY11 and 13 from both levels, leaders in the fight to combat HIV/AIDS are fearful that continued spending reductions may reverse the many successful efforts in containing the epidemic.
Representative Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Boston) of the Joint Committee on Public Health opened his remarks with, "We are here to celebrate, as well as work!"
"We’ve seen a 59 percent reduction in new HIV cases from 1999 to 2008, and a 37 percent reduction since 2005. No other state in the country can come close to the success we’ve had in Massachusetts," he continued.
Sanchez adamantly called for the "critical" need to revive the depleting budget, even with the $1.5 billion savings already incurred in health care costs.
Dan Gates of Provincetown opened eyes to the issues facing the Cape’s residents who are in need of better health care options and transportation to receive that care. The nearest hospital to Provincetown is 50 miles, the nearest rehabilitation center is 55 miles, and psychiatric care has a six-month waiting list, according to Gates.
"P-town has the highest number of HIV-positive individuals per capita in the state," Gates said. He went on to admit that, particularly in winter, there is more alcohol abuse and he said there’s a crystal meth outbreak, both of which affect the health of HIV/AIDS persons and increase transmission of the virus.
While in interim, the Department of Public Health is being commissioned by Lauren Smith, who voiced concern over the youth of Massachusetts, calling them "impervious." The young must take ownership of their bodies, and that can only be achieved with the help of involved parents, she stated. Also, Smith indicated an alarming rate of infection in ethnic-racial minorities, particularly women, as well as the four to five thousand people who are unaware they are infected.
But in keeping with a theme of celebration of achievement, Smith indicated a decline in HIV-related deaths and in new HIV diagnoses.
"It speaks to the kind of critical care [we offer] that when we surveyed 1,000 HIV-positive individuals, 90 percent of them had regular medical care and 90 percent of them had undetected viral loads," she said.
In addition to a decrease in taxes and increase in revenue for low- to middle-income individuals with HIV/AIDS, Representative Carl Sciortino (D-Medford) acknowledged a bill he is working on that will be "relative to HIV-associated lipodystrophy." A bill he says will provide for better access to jobs, and also rebuild some level of dignity.
With the state budget being approved and released in July, there is much work to be done, according to Representative Gloria Fox (D-Boston). Her words to close out the session were inspiring, energetic and evenly pedestrian -- Fox jokingly responded to being called out on the floor the Mother of the Legislature, "I’m actually a great grandmother, twice. In our community, you know what they say, ’Good black don’t crack!’"
Throughout the morning, the goals were mostly consistent on education, prevention, services and critical care for HIV/AIDS. The one hard-hit strategy to help achieve these goals is for the public to stay involved, to speak up, to share their stories whether tragic or triumphant. While ALI includes viral hepatitis in its regiment, concerns about HCV screening and prevention programs were not introduced during the lobbying, as if the two viruses are synonymous.
Project ABLE is a statewide coalition of HIV/AIDS service providers, advocates and people with HIV/AIDS. Email HIVProjectABLE@aol.com for more information. To find your state representative or to learn more, visit http://www.malegislature.gov/People/House.