AIDS agencies scramble for funds

Federal cutbacks force urgent appeal to donors

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / August 22, 2011

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Massachusetts health agencies facing steep cuts in federal funding for AIDS prevention services are issuing urgent pleas to supporters for donations to save imperiled programs.

The agencies were notified by the state Department of Public Health this month that federal funding for AIDS prevention in Massachusetts would be cut by $4.3 million, roughly one-quarter of the state’s annual AIDS prevention budget.

“We are in a budget crisis with our federal government, and it’s unlikely there will be additional resources,’’ said Philip Finch, vice president of development at Fenway Health, which is losing $100,000 in AIDS prevention funding because of the cuts. That’s about 20 percent of what it spends on prevention.

Fenway and many other agencies are confronting a triple whammy, with federal and state cuts, in addition to reduced gifts from recession-weary donors, who have less money to give.

“This is the picture of what our landscape will look like in coming years,’’ Finch said.

In an e-mail to supporters, Fenway highlighted recent federal studies that show young black, gay, and bisexual men have significantly higher HIV infection rates than the general population. “These are the very people that Fenway’s recently opened center for gay and bisexual men . . . works to keep healthy,’’ the e-mail said. “Your support will help ensure that we can continue to do that.’’

Across the state, services run by agencies funded through the federal government are being cut back, including one that distributes free condoms to schools, colleges, and health facilities; programs that give clean needles to intravenous drug users; and a program that trains community case managers who work directly with AIDS patients.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is taking money from Massachusetts and other states with lower HIV infection rates and redirecting it to states, including many in the South, with high or increasing rates.

The CDC’s strategy has angered AIDS agencies across the nation, who say it punishes states such as Massachusetts, where a tight community of health organizations worked together to drive down infection rates by more than 50 percent during the past decade.

“We have asked supporters to be in touch with the CDC specifically . . . to see if there was a way to relook at this,’’ said Leslie Laurie, president and founder of Tapestry Health, which serves Western Massachusetts, including some of the state’s poorest counties.

Tapestry is facing a likely rationing of many of its core services, such as needle exchange for IV drug users, because of the federal cuts, Laurie said. Tapestry is asking supporters to lobby their members of Congress in hopes that lawmakers will be able to sway the CDC.

“We also have a ‘donate’ button on this [e-mailed] newsletter, but we said maybe what we will have to do is go back to bake sales,’’ Laurie said.

An organic coffee company in Orange, Dean’s Beans, has agreed to donate profits from sales to Tapestry.

At AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, Rebecca Haag, president and chief executive, said a $150,000 cut in federal aid is more than half of what it receives to run an HIV hotline, the only one in the state. The phone line, which has operated for 25 years, will probably shut down, she said.

“There is no way private fund-raising will totally make up this loss, and I don’t want to deceive people,’’ Haag said.

The agency, however, is asking supporters to donate money and lobby lawmakers.

“My problem is not just this year but next year, when I would have to raise that money again,’’ Haag said. “That’s been more and more difficult to do every year, and there are more and more nonprofits trying to do the same thing.’’

Kay Lazar can be reached at