COVID-19 budget woes hit New Jersey HIV/AIDS programs

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HEALTH letters on a rainbow backround

New Jersey’s HIV/AIDS service organizations prepare for cuts 

The national economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has been dominating headlines for months, with jobless claims at historic highs and many businesses forced to permanently keep their doors shut. At the state level, the impact on New Jersey’s budget has been drastic, especially with programs that focus on HIV/AIDS prevention.

Kathy Ahearn-O’Brien, Hyacinth’s Executive Director
Kathy Ahearn-O’Brien, Hyacinth’s Executive Director

With budget shortfalls looming, Governor Phil Murphy, a proclaimed friend of the LGBTQ citizens of the Garden State, has mandated a budget cut of at least 10%. Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, New Jersey’s largest HIV/AIDS service organization, will feel those budget cuts.

“The HIV budget is made up of a couple of different components: federal, state, and pharmaceutical rebate dollars,” Kathy O’Brien, executive director of Hyacinth, said. “We’re already taking a hit of 10% because the pharmaceutical rebate projections were cut off effective July 1. Murphy mandated everyone take a cut as of October 1 when the new budget starts. In order to get some of the federal dollars, they have to be matched by the state money.

“What I’m hearing from the state is that it seems like it will be a ‘look at programs to see where there’s overlap’. I think some of the prevention programs we have in place could be in jeopardy, like where we do prevention programs no longer supported by the CDC.”

New Jersey has had some of the most stringent restrictions in order to stop the spread of COVID-19, which hit the Garden State particularly hard at the onset of the outbreak. Hyacinth has been able to keep some of its services going, albeit in a limited capacity, by offering HIV/AIDS testing in six counties and offering harm reduction services at three of its offices, in Jersey City, Paterson (mobile), and Trenton. Education and harm reduction services have been key in slowing the spread of HIV/AIDS, an epidemic in its own right.

“We’ve invested a fair amount in harm reduction and I’m concerned that some of those programs could be cut,” O’Brien said. “We have shifted from behavioral intervention with men having sex with men and Transgender women to PrEP. Then we had some behavioral intervention we do with African American women and Latinas and I’m concerned about those programs. I would hope that [Murphy] would take into consideration that we are trying to end the HIV epidemic.

“We’ve submitted a plan to him and he acknowledged on World AIDS day in 2018 that he was going to work with us to end the HIV epidemic. Any budget cuts would prevent that from happening.”