By Jason Cianciotto, Director of Public Policy, GMHC
What could our movement to end the HIV epidemic accomplish with $24 billion?
According to an estimate from the financial services company, Standard and Poors (S&P), that is what the government shutdown cost the U.S. economy. The same political leaders heralding austerity as critical to our nation’s future facilitated shenanigans that cost nearly 30% of the $85 billion cut by sequestration this year.
This is why I woke up Thursday happy the shutdown ended but even angrier. Amidst this political theater, the real-world affects of federal funding cuts have received little attention. This is especially the case for people living with HIV/AIDS.
It’s time for that to change.
Earlier this week CNN shed light on the consequences of sequestration with a video featuring how cuts have affected programs and services at GMHC. The list is long and depressing: Food pantry bags cut 47%; substance abuse counseling sessions cut 20%; mental health counseling sessions cut 10%; 500 hours of legal counseling services cut; multiple layoffs; a furlough of the entire agency for 1 week; and much more.
Of course, our real focus should be on how these cuts affect the people who come to us for lifesaving services every day. When I spend time with them I hear stories that make my heart ache. One was shocked to learn that he could no longer receive additional portions from our hot meals program, the only nutritious meal he is able to get per day to help mediate the side effects of his medication. Another became distraught after learning that there was now a one-month waiting list to access individual mental health counseling.
As GMHC’s interim CEO Janet Weinberg shared in the CNN video, it’s not like there are other organizations with increased capacity to whom we can refer people in need. These cuts have caused every organization to bleed.
Just a few days before the shutdown, I joined several colleagues from the AIDS United Public Policy Committee for a Congressional visit day focused on the effects of the sequester. We met with several staffers of Members of Congress, including those representing our respectivehome states, Congresswomen Pelosi’s office, and the Health Legislative Aids for House Speaker John Boehner. Our visits with allies produced a unanimous message to bring home: We must actively pursue media outlets and allies to educate the public and lift the voices of people who oppose these draconian federal funding cuts.
Now that the shutdown drama is over, it’s urgent that we re-focus on sharing these stories. The stigma and fear still connected to HIV means that we have to find ways to both empower those willing to share publicly and protect those in need by being their voice when meeting with political leaders and the media.
We also must acknowledge that it will be extremely challenging for our allies in Congress sitting on the new super committee to roll back the sequester. We know that conservatives are already fighting to reduce the cuts to defense programs in sequester phase 2. They will not be as generous to the non-defense-discretionary programs that provide food, housing, and life-saving medication to people living with HIV/AIDS.
Despite these challenges, I still fundamentally believe that we can successfully restore federal support for the fight to end the HIV epidemic. We need to leverage public backlash against those responsible for the shutdown and debt ceiling scare to move political leaders to the center and support candidates in the mid-term election who understand our collective social and moral responsibility to care for each other and provide for our nation’s health.
AIDS United provides a critical structure for us to combine our time, talent, passion, and stories to call for policy change as a strong and unified lobby.
The article was originally posted in the AIDS United newsletter on October 18.