Health Advocates Decry Funding Cuts to Free STD and Immunization Clinics
HARLEM — Impending cuts to the city's STD and vaccination clinics will hamper the fight against the spread of HIV and other diseases, according to health care advocates fighting the loss of funding.
Cuts to clinic hours in Central Harlem, West Harlem, Chelsea, Fort Greene and Jamaica, along with the closure of two of the three remaining free city vaccination clinics in Tremont and Corona, will adversely affect low-income communities of color, said speakers during a rally on the steps of City Hall.
Despite a 40 percent decline in new HIV infections over the last decade, "New York City is still one of the epicenters of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in this country," said Esther W. Y. Lok, assistant director of policy for the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, in an interview.
"We need to put the resources where the community needs them most."
Anne Bové, a nurse at Bellevue Hospital and president of the New York State Nurses Association executive council, called the cuts a "withdrawal of healthcare services from low-income women and children."
The city is cutting Monday and some Saturday hours at the five STD clinics starting Jan. 6.
Health Department officials said previously that the cuts will save the city $600,000 in overtime costs while still providing a high-level of service and a variety of available hours. Saturday hours will be increased in some locations.
The three vaccination clinics are responsible for less than 1 percent of vaccinations in New York City, said health officials.
The Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
While $600,000 is a considerable sum of money, Lok said preventing one HIV infection can save more than $230,000 in services over that individual's lifetime, according to some studies.
Even those who find out they are infected with HIV can get life-saving treatment that allows them to continue to work or take care of their children and families and not spread the disease.
The city's nine free STD clinics served nearly 100,000 people last year. They also allow the city to track sexually transmitted diseases.
Through the second quarter of 2013 there were more than 38,000 cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and herpes. A Department of Health study found that only one in three of the 4 million sexually active people in the city use condoms.
Monday hours for STD clinics are vital because the at-risk population often comes in for treatment after unsafe weekend activities, said clinic staff.
Yet city tax dollars spent on the Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention & Control has dipped from almost $24 million in the 2009 fiscal year to $5.4 million for the 2014 fiscal year, according to the city's Office of Management and Budget.
The cuts come as the city has dealt with a deadly meningitis outbreak that affected 22 men who have sex with men and has led to seven deaths since 2010. The Health Department declared the outbreak under control in September, but the city's STD clinics have continued efforts to vaccinate the at-risk population.
The city's immunization clinics recently had to deal with mass vaccinations as the result of three Hepatitis A outbreaks at a West Village restaurant, Upper West Side supermarket and a Bronx restaurant.
"People need to feel they can go to the STD clinics and immunization clinics on different days and different hours," said Dr. Frank Proscia, executive director of the Doctors Council SEIU.
"If the clinics aren't open, people just won't come back. They won't get tested or get treatment," said Lok.
A staffer at one of the city's STD clinics, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said staff members were concerned about the vulnerable populations they serve.
"There's a lot of uncertainty about public health in New York City, especially for the poor and underserved. There have been several hospital closures, and now the health department has reduced its clinical services," said the staffer.
Making the cuts in the waning days of the Bloomberg administration also doesn't make sense, said health advocates.
"Stop any closures, stop any cuts and let the next mayor come in and do an assessment," said Proscia.
"He can reach out to healthcare providers and workers and say: 'How can we work as a team to make things better.'"