I am outraged. We all knew sequestration was coming, but most people really did not know what those words meant. For GMHC's clients it means cuts to the food that they need in order to take their medicine. It means less support for mental health and substance abuse to deal with the very issues that were part of that reason that they are living with HIV and AIDS. It means cuts to the staff who are here to assist clients to secure benefits so that they can take their medicine, go to doctors and potentially not infect others because their medicine is working so well.
These cuts were already severe enough during recent years as HIV funding has dwindled. Many do not understand why we actually need more funding to accomplish the president's goal of an AIDS-free next generation. But alas, just when we thought we'd seen the last of this year's cuts, we got hit even harder.
Two weeks ago, every organization in New York that has Ryan White funding (which was specifically set up to take care of people with HIV) was hit with a cut of about 15 percent. Why it was cut is the most unbelievable part of this story. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which is the primary federal agency for improving access to health care services for people who are uninsured, isolated, or medically vulnerable, made a formulaic error in New York's funding during 2010, 2011 and 2012. In dealing with their own error, HRSA decided to take back $18 million in funding to AIDS service organizations in New York. All I know is that when I make a math error, I usually am stuck dealing with the consequences.
Who is paying for the consequences here? That would be our clients. Ironically, Ryan White funding is the funder of last resort. This means that the person who is eligible to receive services provided by Ryan White funding are not eligible for public or private insurance. To quote Felix Lopez, GMHC's Legal Services Director, "If Ryan White were alive today, he would not be entitled to services under Ryan White funding." The clients we see under Ryan White are often living on $12 per day after rent and utilities are paid for. It is these very clients who are hurt the most by this terrible decision. What does 15 percent in cuts mean to GMHC, and of course our clients, you might ask? Well, it means a lot. Here is what this latest onslaught has done:
- We had to lay off three very valuable staff members.
- Meals and nutrition: We have a reduction in the amount of food per grocery bag in our food pantry program. We have to limit clients to one serving of the meals we serve Monday through Friday. For some of our clients, this is their only hot meal each day.
- There is now a decrease in nutrition counseling.
- Legal: There will be a decrease in help with evictions, immigration and more.
- Women's services: There will be a decrease in intake and a decrease in HIV testing.
- Mental health services: All our services to individuals and groups will decrease.
These cuts are profound. Did our legislators fall asleep at the wheel? How could they allow HRSA to collect on their math error during a year of already deep cuts? I am baffled.
Where were HRSA, our senators and Congresspeople when I had to stand before some of the most amazing and resilient people to tell them about why we had to cut their services, how services were cut, and what they could no longer count on? I also had to explain that every AIDS service organization is suffering with these cuts. Our clients wanted to know what they should do about this. How can they help GMHC stop the cuts? These very same clients saw that I was close to tears when I had to tell them that we had less food to offer.
When I walked out of the room, several clients followed me. They stopped me to ask, "How can we support you?" The generosity, kindness and love our clients have never fail to amaze me. How lucky I am to work with GMHC's clients who are worried about me when each one of them just received another undeserved harsh blow!
So I ask our elected officials, "When will you ever learn?"