Local HIV prevention program faces cuts

Mpowerment volunteer distributes HIV prevention information at Centralia Community College. Photo courtesy of PCAF.

Submitted by Chris West

The state Department of Health (DOH) and the state HIV Prevention Planning Group (HPPG) may cut funding for HIV prevention programs that serve many college-aged students in Thurston County. The joint proposal would stop funding in 2013 due to low rates of new infections.

Free condom distribution and weekly anonymous HIV testing are on the chopping block along with the Mpowerment Olympia project – an effort to mobilize young gay and bisexual men to create healthy connections and promote safe sex.

The project is linked with South Puget Sound Community College’s Queer-Straight Alliance Club and offers gay and bisexual men a place to connect each week at the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) Community Center in downtown Olympia.

The Pierce County AIDS Foundation (PCAF), which contracts with the DOH and runs the Mpowerment program, received the bad news Sept. 21.

“We don’t quite know why. They acknowledge that the Mpowerment program is one of the most successful in the state,” said Justin Taylor, an HIV prevention coordinator with PCAF.

In 2010, the state legislature voted to change the way the state organizes and delivers HIV prevention services. The legislation eliminated six regional AIDS service networks
and created a centralized planning group – the HIV Prevention Planning Group.

Earlier this year, members of the HPPG agreed on a plan to funnel the majority of resources into three areas with the greatest disease burden, Puget Sound, Vancouver, and Spokane.

Those areas had 2,136 of the 2,766 new HIV cases reported between 2006 and 2010, according to a DOH report. With only 57 new cases reported between 2007 and 2011, Thurston County was left out of the high priority Puget Sound area.

For prevention coordinators like Taylor, the numbers show programs like Mpowerment are working and should continue to be funded.

“Our testing events at the colleges in Olympia get students utilizing services,” he said, “It’s successful, and you want to continue to fund that.”

The program Taylor oversees offers the only free anonymous HIV testing in Thurston County and distributes about 10,000 condoms each year at area events.

Noel Colley, an Mpowerment member, arrived at SPSCC last year wondering how he would fit in.

It didn’t take long for the culinary student to find out, thanks to the support and community he found through Mpowerment.

“I didn’t have anybody, and now I have all these friends. It has completely changed my life,” Colley said.
State prevention leaders are hoping the new focus on regions with the most HIV-positive people in the state will reduce overall infection rates.

“Research has shown that providing treatment to persons living with HIV significantly reduces the likelihood that an HIV-positive person will transmit the virus to an HIV-negative person. From a prevention standpoint, this is the goal we always strive to achieve,” said David Kern, manager of the HIV and Adult Viral Hepatitis Prevention Section at DOH.

For college students in Thurston County searching for a safe way to find and connect with partners, a resource will be lost.

“At the end of the day, we all want to see the infection rates go down, but for students at SPSCC there is a lot of education that happens,” Taylor said. “For many students, it is their first destination, and they are taking that safer sex message from here to places like Seattle.”

Kern said the DOH is still in its decision–making process and no specific dates have been set.

Last Thursday, more than a dozen members of Olympia’s LGBTQ community attended HPPG’s meeting and asked the group to reconsider their decision.

“We are a little family,” Colley said. “This program gives people a sense of belonging.”