At a late Tuesday night meeting, lawmakers approved a measure to cut funding from an HIV services budget.

In a conference committee on the omnibus supplemental appropriations bill, Article 31 was proposed and passed by the committee on a unanimous voice vote. The article stated:

“HIV Grants. The general fund appropriation for the HIV drug and insurance grant program is reduced by $2,219,000 in fiscal year 2015. This reduction is one time and must not be applied to the base.”

Matt Toburen, Director of Public Policy for Minnesota AIDS Project, and Nancy Hilden from Clare Housing, testified at the conference committee.

“We are here to talk in opposition to the $2.2 million that is being reduced from the HIV/AIDS Drug Assistance Program in this budget,” Toburen said. “The AIDS Drug Assistance Program and the funding from this Legislature is used to provide medications, health care services, and wrap-around medical services to make sure that people living with HIV in Minnesota are healthy, linked into medical care, and are on routine medication so that they can achieve a suppressed viral load and are unable to transmit the HIV virus.”

The ADAP program buys HIV medications from drug companies, and because the state buys in bulk, it gets a rebate. That money has historically been used to supplement drug assistance programs for people living with HIV. For years, many states had a wait list for people seeking help with medication costs. Minnesota used the rebates to help cover those on the wait list and Minnesota became one of the few states in the nation without people with HIV waiting for life-saving medications.

“We’ve been able to provide important services for the 8,000 people living with HIV in Minnesota,” Toburen said. “Unfortunately, of those 8,000 people, 40 percent are not in routine medications or linked into routine medical care and that’s what this funding is specified to be used for — so that everyone living with HIV in Minnesota has access to lifesaving medications and a doctor and the problem with taking these funds and using them for other purposes is that we don’t know what this funding will look like in the near future.”

According to Toburen, the state hadn’t spent the money like it was supposed to. “That money has not been used in the community like it was supposed to be used and the whole purpose of rebating HIV drug money and having a rebate in these funds is to provide the exact lifesaving services that are required by these funds.”

Because of that, the state is seeing a surplus in that fund, and now legislators see a place to cut costs. And it’s the second time in recent years that lawmakers have cut that fund, said Toburen.

“I want to remind this legislature that in last year’s budget for this biennium, $2.2 million specifically for this fund had been shifted over several years,” he said. “That was supposed to be paid back this year and the Legislature decided to not repay those funds. So that’s $2.2 million that was essentially cut from this budget last year, last session and now another $2.2 million would bring that to almost four and a half million from a fund that provides incredibly important life-saving services and medications for people living with HIV in Minnesota.”

He said that in communities of color, HIV rates are up to 16 times that of the general population and in some communities it continues to increase. “Now is not the time to take this money from these programs.”

Nancy Hilden said, “When we don’t adequately care for those who have HIV/AIDS, when we let them go out into our community when they are homeless, when they are not getting treatment on a steady-state basis, that is how this kind of infection is propagated in these communities.”

She said she was surprised to see the funding cut added last minute to bills that had already passed the House and Senate. She said the HIV community would have been “very vocal and vociferous in concern and opposition to taking money and applying it elsewhere when there is an outstanding need and a dire need for a very low-income population.”

The funding cut passed by a unanimous voice vote. Members of the conference committee are Sens. Dick Cohen of St. Paul, David Tomassoni of Chisholm, Chuck Wiger of Maplewood, Teri Bonoff of Minnetonka, and Tony Lourey of Kerrick, and Reps. Lyndon Carlson, Sr., of Crystal, Thomas Huntley of Duluth, Tim Mahoney of St. Paul, Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, and Jean Wagenius of Minneapolis.

The Minnesota AIDS Project released a statement on Facebook on Wednesday stating that several legislators are working to fix the problem that created the shift in funds:

The Health and Human Services bill will include a provision that moves one year’s appropriation for HIV/AIDS services into the general fund of $2.2 million dollars. The state’s HIV/AIDS Program will cover these costs by spending down reserves. No direct services will be cut by this reduction, and no individuals will be directly impacted, but it does mean that these funds will not be available to meet other outstanding needs in the HIV community. Although we couldn’t stop the reduction, we do have good news! We have a process to create a structure for these funds that includes greater accountability and transparency so that this never happens again. I am very grateful to Senator Lourey, Senator Scott Dibble and Senator Jeff Hayden for taking the lead on improving this process going forward and to their dedication and commitment to the HIV community!

Disclosure: Andy Birkey is a part-time employee of the Minnesota AIDS Project.

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Andy Birkey

Andy Birkey has written for a number of Minnesota and national publications. He founded Eleventh Avenue South which ran from 2002-2011, wrote for the Minnesota Independent from 2006-2011, the American Independent from 2010-2013. His writing has appeared in The Advocate, The Star Tribune, The Huffington Post, Salon, Cagle News Service, Twin Cities Daily Planet, TheUptake, Vita.mn and much more. His writing on LGBT issues, the religious right and social justice has won awards including Best Beat Reporting by the Online News Association, Best Series by the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and an honorable mention by the Sex-Positive Journalism awards.

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