In the recently passed budget, the Alabama Legislature under-funded the AIDS Drug Assistance Program by more than 40 percent, providing only $2.88 million of the necessary $5 million federal requirement. These Ryan White funds are critical as they are generally considered a "payer of last resort," since the funding covers shortfalls for people who have no other coverage. At the currently proposed funding level for 2010, the program will fail to provide life-saving treatment to many of the 11,000 Alabamans living with HIV disease.
The budget also passed without any of the $700,000 for the state's AIDS service organizations (ASOs). These funds are vital to help the state's ASOs reach the increasing numbers of people who are infected with HIV every day. These cuts will likely result in smaller ASOs closing down or substantially cutting needed services.
The diagnosis here is bleak with the face of HIV/AIDS changing faster than our efforts to combat the disease. Minorities in Alabama are disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control, African-Americans and Hispanics together represent more than 70 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases in the state, despite comprising less than 30 percent of the population.
As the director of education/outreach for the Health Services Center in Hobson City, serving 14 counties in rural northeast Alabama, I have seen the changing face of AIDS firsthand. CDC data indicates that the number of persons living with AIDS has increased from 1993 to 2005 at a greater rate in the South than any other region in the United States. The South also has the highest number of people dying from AIDS nationwide. Approximately 4 out of 10 Americans living with AIDS reside in the South.
At a time when we are all struggling to meet financial challenges, losing existing budget dollars would be catastrophic for Alabama. On a practical level, it would also be pennywise and pound-foolish. Eliminating HIV/AIDS funding may help balance the budget, but it will make a treatable disease more difficult and expensive to address, as well as potentially more deadly down the road. We cannot afford the human and economic costs of letting HIV/AIDS spread unchecked in Alabama.
Our congressional delegation in Washington fought hard to win valuable Ryan White funding dollars for our state. Just last week, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions and Rep. Spencer Bachus sent letters to the state Legislature voicing their support for increased ADAP funding in the budget, but their letters were ignored. Our state Legislature is poised to squander badly needed matching federal dollars.
However, there is one final chance left to reinstate HIV/AIDS program funds to the $2.5 billion General Fund budget, which Gov. Bob Riley has not signed. A committee of lawmakers from the House (Reps. John Knight, Jack Page and Victor Gaston) and the Senate (Sens. Roger Bedford, Zeb Little and one to be named) will soon work to reconcile the Senate's version of the budget. Their vote to allocate $2.82 million in additional funds to the AIDS Drug Assistance Program and the AIDS Service Organizations would trigger the federal government to continue granting $20 million in support to Alabama.
In today's economy, that is a good return on investment, especially when you are saving hundreds of lives and ensuring the health and well-being of all the people of Alabama.
Julie Hope is director of education and outreach at the Health Services Center in Hobson City.