By: Jason Lydon*/TRT Columnist–
The Obama Administration has heralded itself as striving to bring forth an “AIDS-free generation.” In February, many AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs) were celebrating the president’s budget proposal that increased HIV/AIDS funding by $800 million. However, this increase in funding is significantly misleading, a reality we know well here in Massachusetts. On Monday, May 14, the _Boston Globe_ reported that the Massachusetts county jails would be losing over $1 million in funding for HIV/AIDS testing and education. This loss is part of the $4.3 million cut in federal HIV/AIDS funding for Massachusetts.
Morrigan Phillips, a Boston-based social worker focused on HIV/AIDS services, expressed her anger about the cuts: “I think it’s important for community-based HIV/AIDS prevention and support organizations to look critically at these cuts in the long and short term of their impacts.”
She continued, saying, “On the short term, the cuts are making valuable community-based programming vulnerable, despite being a large part of preventing HIV and keeping people who are living with HIV in supportive programs that improve their quality of life. In the long-term, the cuts are part of a bigger shift away from community based HIV/AIDS work to a biomedical model.” This biomedical model has been exemplified in the National HIV/AIDS strategy. Phillips explained, “While it is great for the U.S. to finally have a national strategy, it is troubling that this strategy emphasizes the biomedical model over community prevention and treatment models. One can’t work without the other. A doctor is not going to get someone to be adherent to their medications or get them to their appointments or help them to process grief and trauma; community groups are going to do that. Yet we are the ones losing funding.”
On a statewide level, the fight to restore some of the funding cuts through the state budget is under way. Representative Carl Sciortino was able to get some funding restored in the House budget. Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz is working on a similar amendment for the Senate budget. The senator’s amendment would increase the budget $1.25 million for HIV/AIDS and viral hepatitis for fiscal year 2013. However, this is only a slight beginning to restore funding cuts. According to AIDS Action Committee, “Over the last several years, funding for HIV/AIDS and viral hepatitis has been cut by more than $5 million.” Massachusetts is celebrated as a state with incredibly low rates of new infections, but if we keep cutting programs and services we will begin losing this battle. The AIDS Action Committee letter to state senators in support of Chang-Diaz’s amendment articulates this reality boldly: “It is estimated that without the programs we had in place since 1999, there would have been more than 5,600 additional cases of HIV in Massachusetts. … Failure to sustain the investments of the past 10 years risks the successes we have achieved. In the last year alone, the state has seen more than 600 new diagnoses of HIV.”
These funding cuts are coming at a time when everyone knows that rates of HIV/AIDS disproportionately affect black communities. Boston has declared a state of emergency in black communities because of the rates of HIV/AIDS. Cutting services and programs amounts to racist policy making. Mass incarceration, which also targets communities of color, and HIV/AIDS must be understood as deeply intertwined. The Boston Globe article on the funding cut to HIV/AID testing and education programs in county jails is misleading in its numbers of HIV-positive prisoners. The Massachusetts county system is based on an opt-in testing system, against the recommendation of the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. This means that many prisoners are choosing not to get tested, who may already know that they are positive or who are scared to use the opt-in program because of stigma or any number of other reasons. Rather than cutting funding to HIV/AIDS testing and education in county jails, there should be far greater resources made available. Studies show that nearly 1 in 4 HIV-positive people in the United States will pass through the incarceration system. This is the last place we should be cutting resources from.
There is not a lack of tax dollars; there is a gross misplacement of priorities. It is our responsibility to fight for this funding, to support Senator Chang-Diaz, but we must not stop there. Our tax dollars are ours to spend to take care of our communities. If you are in the Boston area, come to meetings of the newly invigorated ACT-UP, Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m., at Club Cafe on Columbus Avenue. Act up! Fight Back! Fight AIDS!
*Rev. Jason Lydon is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Boston. He is a long time anti-prison organizer and founder of Black & Pink, an LGBTQ-focused effort working toward the abolition of the prison industrial complex. Jason is also an avid lover of famous people and blockbuster action flicks. You can reach Jason at email@example.com