Policy shift, funding cut spell end of AIDS coalition

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A change in the way the state handles planning for HIV/​AIDS services likely will mean the demise of the 22-year-old AIDS Coalition of Southwestern Pennsylvania, an early warrior in Pittsburgh’s fight against the disease.

At the request of the federal government, the state Health Department is taking over some of the service planning that the Shadyside-based coalition and a handful of counterpart agencies across the state long had performed.

So the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, the fiscal agent for state and federal HIV/​AIDS funds, has decided not to renew the coalition’s funding for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which begins Tuesday.

Incorporated in 1992, the coalition has handled planning for HIV/​AIDS services and provided consumer outreach in 11 counties. It originally was known as the Southwestern Pennsylvania AIDS Planning Coalition.

The coalition relied on the $270,000 or so it annually received through the foundation, so it has little chance of survival, said Oladoyin Desalu, the coalition’s executive director for 20 years.

She said the shift in planning doesn’‍t have to occur until late 2015 and criticized the foundation, with which she had a sometimes-strained relationship, for defunding the coalition earlier than necessary and depriving it of an opportunity to find a new mission or source of revenue. However, the foundation, itself a distinguished player in the fight against AIDS, said there’s no reason to delay the change.

While the state will assume some of the coalition’‍s planning work, the foundation said it intends to do the balance for one-third the cost, allowing more money to flow to organizations that directly work with consumers of HIV/​AIDS services.

“This was very thoughtful action,” said Karen Wolk Feinstein, foundation president and CEO.

The foundation disburses $3.1 million in state and federal HIV/​AIDS funds each year.

Richard Smith, director of the foundation’s HIV/​AIDS program, said the change in planning will cause no disruption in client services. A dozen or more agencies provide those resources, ranging from case management to medical care and housing assistance. The coalition had helped to set the priorities for those agencies.

Ms. Desalu said it will be difficult to replace the coalition’s knowledge of the HIV/​AIDS community and noted that its Community Advisory Board gave consumers a voice. Steve Saling, a Wilkinsburg resident and former advisory board member, said he and other coalition supporters are waging a petition drive to save an organization that has ensured “our ability to communicate and hold the service agencies accountable to our needs.”

In other parts of the state, planning coalitions also serve as their regions’‍ fiscal agents. Here, the work was divided between the coalition and foundation.

“That is what has come back now to bite us,” Ms. Desalu said. She said the decision to cut out the coalition enables the foundation to shore up its own position in a competitive funding environment.

Besides concentrating planning in Harrisburg, the state may decrease the number of fiscal agents across Pennsylvania and encourage competition for the contracts. Ms. Desalu said the coalition could have challenged the foundation for the work.

But the foundation said it long has subsidized its involvement in the HIV/​AIDS program. While entitled to take 10 percent of funds for administrative purposes, it instead takes 7 percent, amounting to about $225,000 in the current fiscal year, and dips it into its own funds to cover remaining costs.

Chuck Christen, executive director of Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force, said the foundation has asked him to be involved in a new collaborative that will bring consumers and agencies together. He said some members of the HIV/​AIDS community don’t believe the coalition has been a unifying voice.

“There are very strong feelings on both sides,” he said.

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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