SLO County AIDS support wanes with state funds

Unlike major metropolitan areas, San Luis Obispo County does not have thousands of people living with HIV or AIDS. But for the roughly 200 locals managing these incurable conditions, services and resources provided by the county’s AIDS program and the nonprofit AIDS Support Network have been critical to survival.

Now, as California struggles to overcome a large budget shortfall, some say the ability to meet this population’s needs and educate the public about HIV and AIDS is in jeopardy.

Because state funding was greatly reduced, the county’s AIDS program has been eliminated, leaving much of the work to the private nonprofit group AIDS Support Network, which has had its own funding problems, said Kathleen Karle, program manager of the county’s health agency.

About $52 million for AIDS programs throughout California was cut in the budget approved by Sacramento lawmakers.

The county’s AIDS program ran HIV-testing clinics and reached out to intravenous drug users, who are at high risk for contracting the disease.

It also was responsible for overseeing grants used for prevention work with the public and to send nurses and social workers to the homes of the most critically ill clients, providing food and other items.

“The biggest fear to everyone is that, when you remove these outreach, prevention and testing services, the incidence of AIDS is going to increase,’’ Karle said. “The fear is that when you cut these programs, it will get off everybody’s radar screen. AIDS doesn’t mean that you will die next week, but it does mean that you can live with a very horrible disease for many years. And ultimately, there is a cost.”

Edie Kahn, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County AIDS Support Network, noted that the county had its funding reduced proportionally more than other areas because this region lacks the so-called “burden of disease” of larger metropolitan areas.

The organization has about $100,000 in state money to use for direct service to clients and surveillance, which allows the county to track the number of HIV cases. But the money cannot be used for prevention purposes.

“It’s so devastating to a lot of communities, especially rural communities,’’ she said.

The AIDS Support Network, founded in 1984 by a small group dedicated to tackling the AIDS epidemic, hopes to be able to pick up the slack, assuming the case management of the more medically fragile clients, she said.

In addition to its health education and risk reduction program, the network offers benefits counseling, referrals to psychological and social support groups, housing and food assistance.

It also helps clients pay for trips to the doctor, laboratory work or medication that’s not covered by insurance. Many clients have low, or very low, incomes and find it tough to afford treatment and expensive medications.

The organization, which receives funding from the government, private donations and annual fundraisers, is in the process of determining how to prioritize its funding, Kahn said. The group renegotiated its lease with its landlord to free up some money, and it will try to come up with other funding sources, she said.

But during a recession, there is less money coming from private funding sources.

“It’s sort of a double-whammy for anyone doing fundraisers right now,’’ she said. “A lot of people are getting cut through the state budget. In these economic times, it makes it difficult to get our business sponsors.”

Thomas Moxham, education and outreach coordinator with Fusion — a group of gay men that works with the AIDS Support Network to spread safe-sex messages in the community — said it will be up to volunteers to continue these efforts in the face of dwindling funds.

“Our members are stepping up to the plate and running this with next to no money,’’ he said. “We can’t expand the program at all, but we can keep it alive just by fighting.”