Hundreds rally in SF against AIDS cuts
by Matthew S. Bajko
They came wearing red shirts holding up signs that read "No where else to turn" and "AIDS cuts = death" to show their anger over budget cuts many fear will decimate California's ability to fight the AIDS epidemic.
"No budget cuts," chanted the crowd.
Several hundred people protested Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision to cut $82 million in state AIDS funding at a noon rally across the street from the state office building in San Francisco's Civic Center Wednesday, August 5.
If it were not for state run programs that offer discounted HIV medications, counseling services and health care, Cecilia Chung said she would never have gotten over her HIV diagnosis 16 years ago.
"The funding for all those organizations really helped me to get my feet back on the ground and my life together," said the transgender activist. "I would not be here today screaming from the top of my lungs how can we turn back the clock to 25 years again. He is cutting out people's lives."
The Republican governor used his line-item veto power last week to slash another $52 million in general fund support to AIDS programs, including totally eliminating state funding for HIV prevention and testing efforts, on top of what lawmakers had agreed to cut from the state Office of AIDS budget. The AIDS office saw its budget gutted in half, dropping from more than $167.3 million down to $82.4 million for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
The move infuriated Democratic lawmakers, who are looking at legal means to fight the decision, and enraged AIDS advocates and service providers who fear seeing a spike in HIV cases due to the cuts. People living with HIV and AIDS are concerned reductions in services and healthcare options will be detrimental to their well-being and are looking to elected leaders to reverse the governor's cuts.
"When there is a spike [in HIV cases] we know who has blood on their hands," declared Chung.
San Francisco AIDS Foundation CEO Mark Cloutier told the crowd that the governor and the Legislature are being "reckless with public policy" and vowed he and his agency would not rest until the AIDS cuts were restored. He called on state lawmakers to reconvene and come up with a solution to the state's revenue problems that led to the budget deficits.
"We are outraged. We know there are going to be more infections," said Cloutier. "We have fought for 25 years to build up the San Francisco model of care. He is tearing that system apart."
According to a report issued Wednesday by San Francisco's controller, Ben Rosenfield, the city stands to lose $36.4 million in funding from Sacramento this fiscal year. Of that amount Rosenfield estimated that the Department of Public Health stands to lose $19.8 million, with roughly $4.6 million coming out of its state AIDS funding.
The state's Office of AIDS is expected to soon release a breakdown of how much individual programs and cities will see their funding drop. The San Francisco AIDS Foundation has estimated it could lose $800,000 in state money.
Maritza Penagos, the HIV services director for Clinica Esperanza at the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, said her agency could lose as much as 50 percent of its state funding for HIV testing and monitoring programs. The clinic's total budget for the new fiscal year had been set at $1.2 million.
"We will not shut down, we will weather this storm," said Penagos, though she added that, "I don't know what we are going to look like three months from now."
Her main concern is for the roughly 450 HIV-positive clients she and her staff treat each year. Mainly Spanish-speaking immigrants, 73 percent of whom self identify as gay men, her clients have no other options when it comes to seeking health care, said Penagos.
"It would be hard for the San Francisco model of care to absorb the needs of those individuals," she said." I think people should be talking with officials about restoring the cuts. This really is a dire situation."
Manuel Rochin, a patient at the clinic who declined to state his sexual orientation, denounced the governor's actions at the rally. Since learning he was HIV-positive in 2000, he said he has depended on the care he receives at the health center.
"I wouldn't be standing here today alive. This is why I am very, very irritated," said Rochin, speaking through an interpreter. "This is a disgrace. He is affecting many, many lives. We want these funds returned."