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Sacramento protest to draw attention to AIDS/HIV cuts

Busloads of gay and lesbian protesters from across California are expected to converge on the state Capitol today to protest more than $80 million in proposed budget cuts to AIDS and HIV programs, a reduction that would wipe out state funding of most prevention, education and surveillance programs that help fight and track the disease.

The cuts affect such things as HIV testing, types of drugs available to the poor and prevention programs that target those most at risk of contracting the HIV virus.

“California has been a leader in AIDS care, and it’s definitely slipping out of that role,” said Michael Weinstein, president of Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation. “There’s a grave concern from a public health point of view that capping these programs is going to result in the spread of the disease and much greater expenses down the road.”

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The $80.1 million in proposed cuts represent an elimination or severe reduction of AIDS-related programs and shifts the bulk of the financing to the federal government and local jurisdictions, even as between 5,000 and 7,000 new cases are identified statewide each year.

Among the proposed cuts:

* Education, prevention, counseling and testing programs would lose all state funding. Only $8.9 million would remain in federal funding, compared with $41.8 million budgeted this year.

* Early intervention programs, including medical care and counseling services, would lose all state funding, roughly $13.78 million. They would retain $12.4 million in federal funding.

* The $8-million therapeutic monitoring program would be eliminated, making it difficult for HIV patients to determine whether their prescribed medications are working.

* The AIDS Drug Assistance Program that provides medicine to the poor would take a $12-million hit, although the program would largely be saved. HIV patients would be asked to share costs, and obtaining certain drugs could become more difficult.

Advocates of AIDS and HIV programs say that now more than ever, education and prevention are necessary. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control said it had underestimated by 40% the number of Americans infected by HIV each year.

At the same time, the number of Americans naming HIV/AIDS as the most urgent health problem facing the nation has dropped from 44% in 1995 to 6%, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“When the lifetime cost of care is $600,000, cutting HIV prevention dollars is not a good long-term investment,” said Craig Thompson, executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles.

Dr. Michelle Roland, chief of the state’s Office of AIDS, said that although poor HIV patients would still be able to obtain medication, there would be other repercussions. New infections may not be as effectively prevented; people wouldn’t receive the same level of care and health officials may not be able to as effectively track trends in the spread of the disease, she said.

And on a local level, it would become increasingly difficult for cash-strapped counties to fund AIDS programs.

AIDS Project Los Angeles, for example, learned last week that it will not get $300,000 in renewed county funding for its MPowerment program, which serves young gay men, the group at highest risk of contracting HIV.

MPowerment’s coordinator, Ray Fernandez, said his clients form friendships and help each other find housing and stay away from behavior that could lead to HIV. In turn, they recruit more at-risk men to the group.

Adrian Scott, 24, moved from Seattle to Los Angeles three years ago, with no friends or family to support him. MPowerment gave him an immediate social network and place to go for help.

“HIV is so easy not to get, but education was so sparse,” Scott said. “Now I have everything I need to make sure I’m safe.”

Luis Maldonado, 18, said he found a family in MPowerment. They were there when he came out to his mother, providing the support he needed to face her judgment. Without it, he said’ his grades probably would have dropped, or he might have run away from home or made poor decisions. Instead, he’s headed to USC this fall.

“If we don’t have these groups, it’s nothing,” Maldonado said. “This is like a home. . . . I developed stronger as a person, became more opinionated. I speak for what I feel is right.”

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kimi.yoshino@latimes.com


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