Cuomo’s plan to end AIDS stalls in Albany

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Cuomo at a press event in April at the LGBT Community Center in the West Village. (Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)

On an unseasonably warm day in late April, Governor Andrew Cuomo came to the West Village and was received as a hero.

He held in his hand, he said, the blueprint to end the AIDS epidemic in New York State.

“Today, New York leads the way once again by raising the bar and saying, 'We will not stop until AIDS becomes a disease of the past like tuberculosis, measles and polio,'” Cuomo said, as hundreds of people who lined West 13th Street cheered him on.

Two months later, when the 2015 session in Albany came to an end, not one piece of legislation found in the blueprint had passed.

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Proponents of the bills lamented the inability of the governor and Legislature to translate any of the plan into reality. 

"While the blueprint that was released by the Governor's Ending AIDS Epidemic Task Force was a step forward, the Governor, the Senate and the Assembly all need to demonstrate to New Yorkers that they are serious about safeguarding the public's health through action, not just words," State Senator Gustavo Rivera said in an email. "As one of the states most drastically affected by HIV/AIDS, it is shameful that some of our representatives are not making this issue a priority."

The blueprint had several no-cost, or low-cost suggestions, such as a new syringe decriminalization measure and the Healthy Teens Act, a bill that would establish an age-appropriate sex education grant program within the Department of Health.

Both those bills were sponsored by Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, but neither was voted on by the Republican-controlled Senate, and neither made it out of committee. The companion bills fared no better in the Democrat-run Assembly.

"It is extremely frustrating that we were not able to make much progress this legislative session on common sense initiatives that were identified as necessary to eradicate AIDS as an epidemic in New York State," Rivera said. "Every day we delay implementing and expanding the preventive measures that have proven to be successful at reducing new cases of HIV, such as decriminalizing syringe possession and the Healthy Teens Act, we place a greater number of vulnerable New Yorkers at risk."

The blueprint was the work of a 63-member task force that was appointed by the governor. Its recommendations—ranging from providing greater access to condoms to doubling the number of people on antiretroviral therapy—are based around three goals: identifying people who are H.I.V.-positive, linking those people to care and increasing access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which helps keep people H.I.V.-negative.

Cuomo's plan calls for an end to the AIDS epidemic by 2020, which would mean reducing the number of new infections in New York State to fewer than 750, below what is considered epidemic levels. The state now sees about 3,200 new cases each year, but that number has been steadily declining. There are approximately 130,000 New Yorkers living with H.I.V., about a quarter of whom have been diagnosed with AIDS.  

Cuomo, who marched in Sunday's Gay Pride parade and performed his first marriage ceremony outside the Stonewall Inn, said he still expects New York to lead the nation in ending the epidemic.

"Our blueprint is going forward and everything we need to get it done is in place," Cuomo told Capital after performing the wedding ceremony.

But unless the Democratic governor can compel the State Senate to act, most of the blueprint's initiatives will have to wait.

"The governor's blueprint is visionary," said State Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat. "Frankly, I don't know if the Legislature is up to the challenge."

Hoylman said Senate Republicans have to take responsibility for blocking some of these actions but, ultimately, the failure to act on what he called "a transformative" plan is collective.

"Nobody did enough, because it didn't get done," Hoylman said.

GENDA, the Gender Non-Discrimination Act that would prohibit discrimination against transgender persons in employment, housing, public accommodations, education and credit, failed to receive a vote in the Senate. It is similar to a law that already exists in 19 other states.

"GENDA passed the Assembly for the eighth time this year, yet Senate Republicans continue blocking a vote for equality," Senator Daniel Squadron, a Manhattan Democrat who sponsored the bill, said in a statement. "It's shocking that our state allows discrimination against transgender New Yorkers simply for being who they are."

These are the bills that, in theory, should have been easy to pass because they don't cost very much.

The blueprint also calls for housing assistance for the estimated 6,000 New Yorkers living with H.I.V.

Providing that support would cost somewhere between $600 million and $700 million over the next six years, according to an analysis from Housing Works and the Treatment Action Group.

Doubling the number of people on antiretroviral therapy is estimated to cost $375 million each year, according to the same analysis.

“We'll find the funding to make it a reality,” Cuomo told Capital in April, though it is not clear how that will be accomplished.

(Proponents of the blueprint say the investments will more than pay for themselves when new infections are reduced.)

The state health department did not respond to a request for comment.

Cuomo, in this past year's budget, did include $10 million in housing assistance for those living with H.I.V.

"I think that there is a plan at all is tremendous, considering no state in the country has anything like this," said Anthony Hayes, managing director of public affairs and policy for Gay Men's Health Crisis. "I think we've seen the Governor's commitment through the $10 million he has allocated."

The City Council is allocating $3.9 million to match Cuomo's funding, but that will still leave the city and state hundreds of millions shy.

"Mayor [Bill] de Blasio is deeply committed to ending the AIDS epidemic and has made key investments on the city-level, such as fully funding the HASA 30 percent rent cap," said Amy Spitalnick, spokeswoman for the mayor. "We are awaiting details on State funding for the blueprint and how it will be spent. Once we have those details, we will assess potential City funding."


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