March 14, 2008
WHAT A DRAG
Council Members livid at delay in prevention funds
Frieden defended the DOH
The ongoing nine month delay in distributing $2.7 million dollars intended to fight HIV/AIDS among communities of color "is not a process that leads itself to effective programming," Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Tom Frieden said Tuesday in his address at the City Council preliminary budget hearing for the Committee on Health. And, as Frieden noted, "In this instance, it's not the fault of the Department of Health."
Since its inception, the City has taken so long to distribute its HIV/AIDS Prevention and Education program money, better known as the Communities of Color, or COC, funds, that the deserving organizations who desperately need the dollars will have to scramble to spend them before the June 30 fiscal year deadline. This diminishes their ability to serve the folks the money is intended to help. Frieden diplomatically didn't point fingers, but we can: City Council is responsible for the hold-up.
As the Update reported last month, the COC funding, which was approved during the June 2007 New York City budget agreement, has been held up unconscionably long year after year. This year, according to the City Council finance department, request for proposals (RFPs) were delayed because the City Council solicited more community-based organizations from Queens, since no groups from the borough applied last year. This lag was intended to expand the geographic scope of participating organizations—and the number of council members' districts.
According to City Council Finance and Public Health Solutions (more commonly known as its former name MHRA) which distributes the awards, the 12 groups in Manhattan and Brooklyn that received funding last year are going to receive letters in the next couple of weeks notifying them about their awards. The awards are expected to be reduced from $75,000-$125,000 to $40,000-$50,000 this year, in order to add to funds for new groups from the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.
The four groups from Staten Island and the Bronx that received funding last year— Community Health Action Of Staten Island and in the Health People Inc. New York Harm Reduction Educators, Inc and New York Harm Reduction Educators—are not expected to receive funding this year.
The actual funding comes through in April—meaning the groups, many of them with tiny budgets—will have at most three months to implement programs and spend the money by June 30, when the funding expires. As Ding Pharjaron, director of development at the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition in HIV/AIDS, told the Update last month, "We're just waiting. It's very difficult to create a program when there's such a short period of time to implement it. It all depends on what the City Council wants. Maybe they'll be able to do it, maybe not."
Make some noise
Many City Council members were unaware City Council was responsible for this year's delay in COC money. Council Member Kendall Stewart, who had asked Frieden about the COC funding, blamed the Department of Health until a member of the City Council Finance department clarified the situation. After he learned that it was the Council delaying the money, Stewart told the Update, "I'm going to make a lot of noise to make sure this doesn't happen again. It's not just this funding. A lot of agencies seem not to get the money they need. There needs to be a structure."
When Council Member Rosie Mendez was told about the short time frame groups would have to spend money, she said, "We need to figure out a new system."
Council Member Diana Reyna said the delay in funding is a perpetual problem, and pressure needs to be put on Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "It's a disservice to the communities, both people who use the services and the non-profits that have less time to provide the much-needed services. I hope Council leadership will impose serious deadlines on distributing funding," she said. "Even a good time-table is January."
When asked for a response, Quinn's office only issued the following statement: "In the next few weeks, Public Health Solutions will be conducting a mini-solicitation of groups to ensure that all five boroughs have equitable access to funding. Once that solicitation is complete, we'll be able to allocate funding to qualified organizations."
Housing Works has an idea: For next year (FY 2008 - 2009), City Council should renew for the groups in the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island that scored well enough to receive funding this year. The pot of money should be increased from $2.7 million to $4.2 million (a $1.5 million dollar add) and the extra funds should be used to solicit new providers from all five years boroughs. The same system could be put in place for the next year. Should Council members want a new group from their respective districts to receive funding, the funding levels would need to be increased.
Although many issues were discussed at the health committee hearing on the preliminary budget—from putting fruit in grocery stores to restaurant health inspections to smoking cessation to the excessive number of rats in New York City apartments—HIV prevention was the only topic that came with party favors. When Frieden discussed DOH's record 17,770 condoms distributed in 2007, his aides handed out the new NYC rubbers to all council members, some of whom took multiple handfuls, like Council Members Simcha Felder and John Liu. Liu joked, "I'm going to need more of these."
In all seriousness, Frieden noted that while HIV prevention across the board in New York City has seen improvements—with the number of new AIDS diagnoses decreasing from 4,345 in 2005 to 3,750 in 2007, and new pediatric AIDS cases in 2007 only numbering 2—the increase of sexually transmitted infections among young men who have sex with men is troubling. "It seems that we have an age effect where men who have come of age recently and weren't directly affected by the AIDS epidemic are less likely to use condoms," Frieden said."We've got good HIV treatment, but we need to get the message across differently that treatment is no picnic." New infections among MSM under age 30 have increased by 33 percent during the past six years, according to the DOH, from 374 in 2001 to almost 500 in 2006.
In addition, Frieden said that DOH is looking at ways to spend prevention dollars more effectively. "We're spending a lot of money on prevention, but we're not getting the return we should," he said. He said he welcomed continuing discussion on the issue with the Council and community-based organizations.