Federal funding ban would pinch Bay Area needle exchange programs 

Supporters of Bay Area needle exchange programs are calling a move by Congress to once again ban federal funding for the programs a step backward in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

The ban is a provision in an unrelated spending bill that Congress approved last week and that President Barack Obama is expected to sign. In 2009, Obama lifted a prior ban, which first took effect in the 1980s.

“The reinstatement of the ban is really a dark day in public health policy,” said James Loduca, vice president of public affairs for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

The change will not have significant financial repercussions in San Francisco and the Peninsula, where programs are primarily funded by county general funds. But advocates say the move could hinder their agencies’ ability to expand existing services by pulling away a funding safety net, deterring agencies that plan to fight the ban from pursuing other initiatives and derailing years of advancement in HIV/AIDS research and treatment.

“People are gearing up for this fight, but there are a lot of other things we could be working on,” said Laura Thomas, a deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance’s San Francisco office. “It’s so frustrating at this point in the epidemic.”

Money and manpower that will be spent trying to lift the ban again next year could be better spent supporting treatment programs and research, Thomas said.

Representatives of the AIDS Foundation and Drug Policy Alliance say the action by Congress threatens what their agencies stand for.

“We believe there is now an even greater burden on organizations like ours to be vocal advocates for why syringe access programs are important to public health,” Loduca said.

The AIDS Foundation partners with The City and is its primary provider of syringe access.

In San Mateo County, syringe access is part of the public health department’s STD/HIV program, which offers services such as clinics, public outreach and testing. But unlike the AIDS Foundation, which receives additional support from private donors, San Mateo’s needle service relies entirely on the county coffers.

“We have nothing to fall back on; we did lose a safety net for a vulnerable population,” said Matt Geltmaker, STD/HIV program director. “They’re kind of being further marginalized at a time when services are greatly needed.”

If budget woes compel the county to cut the $150,000 a year that goes to the service, the loss of possible federal funding could spell trouble for the needle exchange, Geltmaker said.

sgantz@sfexaminer.com

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