Cutting the ribbon
City to slash funding for HIV programs even as Toronto faces record number of infections
While kids' nutrition programs and community centres may be safe from the city's budget cutbacks, one potentially life-saving program still faces the axe.
The under-publicized HIV prevention grant program is still a prime candidate for the chopping block.
On Monday the budget committee will make its final recommendations to council on Rob Ford’s 2012 budget. If the current draft of the budget is approved, the city will reduce community investment grants to HIV prevention programs by 10 per cent, or $150,000, next year.
This would mean eliminating support to at least two or three of the 41 HIV programs that currently receive city money, and while that’s a fraction of the whole, losing them could have serious consequences.
The programs that are facing cutbacks target those at the highest risk for HIV, including sex workers, drug-users, and immigrant communities. The city funds the outside agencies to reach populationss that city staff can’t easily access.
“We don’t have the language skills or the street credibility to really be involved with those populations that are most at risk,” says Barbara Macpherson, manager of AIDS grants at Toronto Public Health. “That is what the grant recipients do for us. They go to the places we can’t go.”
The cuts are being proposed at a time when more Torontonians than ever before are HIV positive. According to Casey House, one in 120 adults in the city is now living with the disease.
It’s not clear yet which programs would lose funding if the budget goes through, but last year the city supported an array of HIV initiatives, including Eva’s Initiative for Homeless Youth, the Black Coalition for AIDS prevention, the Parkdale Community Health Centre, and the Hassle Free Clinic.
Many of these agencies have only a handful of paid staff, and leverage the city money to reach out to volunteers or get funding from other levels of government.
At a special meeting of the budget committee last month, Toronto’s medical officer of health Dr. David McKeown gave a remarkably candid presentation on what scrapping support for even two or three HIV prevention programs could mean.
“If we believe, as we do based on the evidence, that these programs work, then reducing these levels poses a risk that there could be an increase [in HIV infections],” McKeown told the committee.
The rationale for cutting the programs is to save money, but McKeown believes that in the long run it will cost taxpayers more.
When McKeown was asked whether cutting the programs makes financial sense, his answer was blunt. “No it doesn’t,” he said. “Even though the city doesn’t bear those costs of treating the person who becomes infected with HIV the province does, and therefore the taxpayer does.”
It costs approximately $1 million to treat an HIV-positive person over the course of their lifetime.
“We don’t have to prevent many cases before we realize financial gain,” said McKeown.
Kristyn Wong-Tam is one of the few councillors who has raised the alarm over the HIV program cuts. She says the city is about to take a dangerous step in the wrong direction.
“I think it’s quite jarring,” she said in an interview last month. “We can’t relax and take for granted the gains that we’ve made. We actually need to improve and up our ante in fighting this terrible disease.”
“We are, by reducing funding, actively spreading the disease ourselves.”