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Center on Halsted's HIV Testing Threatened by State Budget Impasse

By Ariel Cheung | June 22, 2016 8:50am
 HIV rapid testing swabs.
HIV rapid testing swabs.
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BOYSTOWN — It's busy season at Center on Halsted.

The month-long celebration of LGBTQ pride in Boystown brings visitors like comic actor John Cleese and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to the center. It also brings hundreds of people to get tested for HIV.

But state money for the testing has been past due for a year. And while Center on Halsted has been covering the gap in funding, that could end soon.

"It's really uncertain what our path will be in the future to continue testing," said spokesman Peter Johnson. "We've been floating these services on our own accord for the sake of the community, because we do really view it as a central service."

There is a "critical need" for services like free HIV testing. Over the past year, the center has administered 3,191 tests.

More than one-third of those should have been paid for with a $200,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Health. Of the thousands tested, 33 people tested HIV positive, while another four tested positive but were previously diagnosed.

Dozens stood outside Center on Halsted as even more packed inside for a vigil to honor victims of a horrific shooting at Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida. [DNAinfo/Evan Moore]

The testing also linked 64 new clients to healthcare and services at Center on Halsted — another goal of the state grant.

Young people 16 to 29 years old took three out of four tests under the grant's umbrella of coverage. The center is seeing more young adults becoming HIV positive — a worrying trend it hopes to curtail, Johnson said.

"The face of HIV has changed drastically," and there is a "critical need" for accessible testing, Johnson said.

"Now we have a new generation that was not born when the onset of HIV happened in the early '80s, who might not have the same understanding of safer sex practices," Johnson said.

Not all state funding has been cut off for the center. The Quality of Life Fund — generated from lottery scratch-off revenue — still flows, as does money from the Chicago Department of Public Health.

The state health department has set lofty goals to halt the spread of HIV and AIDS, but cutting money that goes toward testing will put that progress at risk, said Charlie Rice-Minoso, spokesman for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. 

In recent years, Illinois has seen a decline in the number of new HIV infections, which Rice-Minoso credits to testing, outreach and educational efforts.

"Without reimbursement and continued funding, it's likely that we may see a reversal in years' worth of community engagement to tackle this epidemic," he said.

Illinois' budget situation is the result of a failure by Gov. Bruce Rauner and leaders of the Democratic Party to agree on a blueprint for the state's future. Rauner has said that the Legislature needs to pass business-friendly measures such as limiting collective bargaining by public sector unions and cutting the cost to businesses of workers' compensation. If Democrats agree to some of those changes, the governor has said he'll OK tax increases to help fix the state's budget deficit. Democrats say Rauner's proposals are unacceptable.

As the state budget impasse stretches into a second year, Johnson said it's unclear how much longer the center can cover for the state — and that could have a "devastating impact for the State of Illinois."


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