Future uncertain for many HIV/AIDS networks after Liberals defund dozens

Click to play video 'Funding to AIDS organizations remain steady, says minister of Indigenous, northern affairs' Funding to AIDS organizations remain steady, says minister of Indigenous, northern affairs
When asked if funding would remain steady to AIDS organizations after plans to cut funding, Carolyn Bennet, the minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, said the health minister has reached out to the public health agency to help the “impacted organizations by working with them to extend transitional funding for another year.” – Dec 1, 2016

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised a red and white flag in Ottawa to mark World AIDS Day, dozens of Canadian organizations committed to supporting people living with HIV/AIDS are grappling with “catastrophic” cuts to their federal funding.

More than 30 per cent of HIV/AIDS organizations historically supported by the federal government recently learned they’d been cut off. The defunding is a result of the Public Health Agency of Canada realigning its priorities regarding fighting the disease in Canada.

“I think we can stay open for the next year,” executive director for AIDS Society of Canada Gary Lacasse said tentatively. “But after that, I don’t know. We’re still advocating and lobbying and hoping.”

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau hoists World AIDS Day flag on Parliament Hill

The only reason he’s somewhat confident the society can continue operating until 2018 is because the Liberal government, after notifying more than 40 organizations they no longer qualified for federal backing, offered a year of transitional funding.

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WATCH: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raises a flag on Parliament Hill to mark World AIDS Day.

Click to play video 'Justin Trudeau raises flag for World AIDS Day on Parliament Hill' Justin Trudeau raises flag for World AIDS Day on Parliament Hill
Justin Trudeau raises flag for World AIDS Day on Parliament Hill – Dec 1, 2016

‘Serious gaps’ in services to come

The irony of Trudeau’s flag-raising amid fund-cutting wasn’t lost on many in Ottawa.

“World AIDS Day is when we show our support for those living with HIV and AIDS, but this prime minister is planning to cut funding to many community-based organizations,” Opposition leader Rona Ambrose said Thursday in the House of Commons.

“[These organizations] are on the front lines, fighting against HIV and AIDS, and they may be forced to close their doors.”
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READ MORE: HIV rates still rising in Canada, but treatment is simpler, safer and effective

NDP health critic Don Davies told the House the cuts will cause “serious gaps in critical services” in many communities.

“This means cuts for First Nations and Inuit, inmates in corrections and vulnerable Canadians,” he said.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, defended the government and declared the fight against HIV and AIDS remains a Liberal priority.

“While 124 organizations were successful in the application process some were not,” she said, highlighting the transition funding offered to those defunded organizations.

New priorities cause loss of funding

The loss of funding to these organizations is the result of new priorities the Liberal government employed to award the $26.4 million-per-year purse.

Although the amount of funding for HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C has remained level since 2008, the Liberal government changed the types of projects that money will fund.

Health Minister Jane Philpott last month said the funding would now focus on “fostering innovation and collaboration,” and shift from treatment to prevention.

WATCH: Liberal MP says government to invest $76M to tackle HIV

Click to play video 'Liberal MP says government to invest $76M to tackle HIV' Liberal MP says government to invest $76M to tackle HIV
Liberal MP says government to invest $76M to tackle HIV – Dec 1, 2016

The Public Health Agency of Canada, which holds the purse strings on this funding, held consultations ahead of redesigning the funding requirements, but Lacasse said those consultations were only within the department.

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“They used to work with us, but this was all conceived internally,” he said. “There was no transparency on this.”

READ MORE: Made-in-Canada HIV/AIDS treatment embraced by everyone but Canada

In fact, Lacasse said he and many of the organizations represented by the Canadian AIDS Society are still unclear as to why they were defunding.

“The letter of denial had inconsistencies,” he said. “There was a disconnect between what we’d proposed and what they said we proposed … we’re still asking how did they get to the conclusion we don’t qualify for funding?”

‘Canada is experiencing epidemic AIDS rates’

Lacasse, whose society represents 85 community-based organizations across the country, said that funding new groups and initiatives shouldn’t come at the cost of established organizations with which the HIV/AIDS community is familiar.

“The government decided to concentrate on prevention, but now the services will be gone for people living with HIV and AIDS,” he said. “We all do prevention, continuously making sure people are taking medications and not re-transmitting.”

READ MORE: Doctors celebrate as Health Canada approves Truvada as HIV-prevention therapy

The Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network also saw its program funding slashed, a move the organization said “decimates” their ability to fulfill their mandate and will have “far-reaching consequences.”

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Ken Clement, CEO of the network that represents more than 340 organizations and individuals supporting Aboriginal people living with AIDS, described the funding cuts as devastating.

“Supporting our indigenous community is pivotal to turning the tide, now more than ever, when Canada is experiencing epidemic AIDS rates,” he said.

Approximately 2,570 people were infected with HIV in 2014, with Aboriginal people continuing to be over-represented, according to a report from the Public Health Agency.

Almost 11 per cent, or 278, of all new infections in 2014 occurred among Aboriginal people, who represent 4.3 per cent of the total Canadian population, according to the report.

Overall, an estimated 75,500 people in Canada were living with HIV/AIDS in 2014, representing a 9.7 per cent increase from the end of 2011. Barely more than one in five people living with the virus are aware of it, and the federal health agency estimates 26,400 people with HIV have died since testing began 1985.