AIDS advocates lambaste CA lawmakers over 2022 budget

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Friday July 1, 2022
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AIDS advocates are critical of Governor Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers for only partially funding their budget requests to tackle sexually transmitted infections and drug overdoses. Photo: Courtesy Twitter<br> <br>
AIDS advocates are critical of Governor Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers for only partially funding their budget requests to tackle sexually transmitted infections and drug overdoses. Photo: Courtesy Twitter

AIDS advocates and service providers are lambasting California lawmakers and Governor Gavin Newsom for failing to fully address the state's dual epidemics of sexually transmitted infections and drug overdoses, particularly due to opiates, in the 2022-2023 budget despite a record surplus of nearly $100 billion.

Of the $105 million in new funding a coalition of nonprofit service providers had sought in the new fiscal year budget to address the twinned STIs and drug epidemics, a mere $38 million was allocated. The agencies are now calling on state lawmakers to take further actions to fund increased sexual health services and harm reduction efforts for those with drug addictions.

"We call on Governor Newsom and the Legislature to take immediate action to ensure that these programs are not left to fend for themselves as overdose deaths continue to skyrocket," stated APLA Health Chief Executive Officer Craig E. Thompson.

Newsom, for a second year in a row, didn't add any of the additional funding sought by the AIDS advocates in the budget he submitted to lawmakers. The California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus had pledged to champion the budget request in the Legislature, as the Bay Area Reporter noted in May. Yet, they secured less than half of the funding the coalition of more than 150 organizations using the name End the Epidemics was seeking in the budget that was adopted and signed by Newsom in late June.

There is $30 million over three years to address the ongoing uptick in syphilis and congenital syphilis cases. While that figure is $19 million less than what the advocates had asked for to address that specific sexually transmitted disease, it is the largest-ever state investment in STD prevention, according to the coalition.

Their ask for an additional $8 million to reach the goal of eliminating hepatitis B transmission in the Golden State was included and will be allocated out over three years. It is the first time the state has invested in community-based services for hep B, according to the coalition.

While they were appreciative of the $38 million that was included in the budget, AIDS advocates nonetheless made their disappointment known in a statement sent to the B.A.R. June 30. They pointed out that the failure to fully fund the sexual health and harm reduction services will negatively impact LGBTQ individuals, especially people of color.

San Francisco AIDS Foundation Chief Executive Officer Tyler TerMeer, Ph.D., stated that the coalition was "outraged" that the other $67 million in funding it was seeking was not allocated. He also criticized Newsom's refusal, "for the second year," to fund the Health Equity and Racial Justice Fund when there is a record state budget surplus.

"California is in the midst of an overdose crisis that is killing thousands of Californians every year. There is a clear moral imperative to fund critical harm reduction and overdose prevention measures that will save lives," stated TerMeer, a gay man living with HIV who took over leadership of the AIDS agency in February. "The choice to exclude funding for harm reduction, hepatitis C, STI services for LGBTQ+ people, and community-based health equity initiatives fails California's most vulnerable communities, many who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color."

Left out of the budget

Left out of the budget was $20 million being sought to address hepatitis C and $7 million to expand STI testing and treatment services to low-income, uninsured LGBTQ+ individuals through the state's Family PACT program. The coalition also wanted $750,000 for free condom distribution in public schools.

With overdose deaths up 45% in California since June 2020, $20 million was also being sought for syringe services programs and overdose prevention programs. Most of it would have been earmarked to continue a pilot program called the California Harm Reduction Initiative set to expire June 30, 2023.

"National Harm Reduction Coalition is outraged by the lack of continued investment in the California Harm Reduction Initiative. As the overdose crisis rages on in our state — heavily impacting BIPOC communities — it is negligent not to invest in evidenced-based strategies like harm reduction," stated Jenna Haywood, the coalition's associate director of community mobilization. "Now is not the time to cut the only state investment in harm reduction program staffing and instead the state should be expanding this low barrier, low-cost intervention on overdose and other drug related harms. The message this budget sends is that people who use drugs' lives are disposable and that especially BIPOC lives are disposable."

Newsom's office did not immediately respond to the B.A.R.'s request for comment July 1, nor did a spokesperson for the LGBTQ caucus, chaired by gay Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Campbell), respond to a request for comment Friday.

A spokesperson for gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) told the B.A.R. he was traveling and wouldn't be reachable for several days. The Legislature is now in recess until August.

In a statement released June 30 California Health & Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly called the budget "historic" and said the state was making investments that will improve the lives of vulnerable Californians while addressing various underlying societal inequities.

"In order to create a state where all of us can have a chance to thrive based on our efforts and hard work, we cannot allow certain groups and individuals to be disadvantaged because of the color of their skin, gender identity, sexual orientation, age or disability," stated Ghaly. "This budget seeks to lift all boats, but some boats are being lifted more. It also allows us to be a leader in the fight for equity and gives us the opportunity to create programs that address the persistent and systemic inequities that fueled the pandemic."

The coalition of service providers pledged to continue to mobilize and call on Newsom and the legislators to allocate additional resources "to achieve true health equity" for the people they serve, including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and people who use drugs. Among them is the San Francisco-based GLIDE Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the liberal church located in the city's Tenderloin neighborhood.

Like its coalition partners, the agency expressed a dual reaction to the final budget adopted this year by state leaders. While applauding the boost in STI funds, it called on state lawmakers to "do more" to address the ongoing health concerns impacting vulnerable populations across California.

"GLIDE is grateful to the state Legislature for ensuring California's most vulnerable populations - including communities that GLIDE serves — are supported with critical access to STI testing. With historic levels of investments for these public health measures, GLIDE can continue providing our clients with the vital community health resources they need," said Miguel Bustos, a gay man who is senior director of the foundation's Center for Social Justice. "While expanded funding for STI testing access is welcomed, it is disappointing the budget does not do more to address the state's overdose crisis and provide desperately needed services to communities of color and people who use drugs."

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