Tough Times

Funding losses force SAAF to cut core services for the first time in its 21-year history

SAAF's Wendell Hicks and Michele Bart hope to ride out the organization's tough times.

When Jim Wymore moved to Tucson 11 years ago, he was looking for a fresh start after watching most of his friends in San Francisco die from the destruction of AIDS.

When he arrived in Tucson, Wymore, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, was emotionally grieving and in bad shape physically, the results of 14 years of ineffective treatment until doctors figured out the right combination of meds to keep the virus under control.

"I moved here because I had family here, but my old family of choice pretty much disintegrated. They were dead and dying," Wymore recalls.

In a small room off the entrance of the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation (SAAF) south of Euclid Avenue and Broadway Boulevard, Wymore sits surrounded by shelves that resemble a health food store. It's a small glimpse of where Wymore says he found a new family at the AIDS care and prevention organization.

The rows of vitamins and supplements in the room are also part of a program he knows first-hand helps people with HIV/AIDS feel better and more empowered in taking care of themselves.

"The side effects of the new medications are horrendous for some people. I take lots of vitamins and supplements. My energy level is better and that makes me feel better," Wymore explains.

"I think one can argue that while that has nothing to do with my physical health, a feeling of well-being is most important in helping me take better care of myself. It might not be about life and death, but there's something to say about self-empowerment when dealing with this disease."

That self-empowerment has been dished out through SAAF's Travis Wright Memorial Buyers' Club the past nine years—allowing the organization to purchase large quantities of vitamins and nutritional supplements and sell them at a 25 to 28 percent mark-up to those with HIV/AIDS who come in with long lists of recommendations from their naturopaths.

While the buyers' club remains in place and Wymore continues to volunteer there, it's reeling from funding changes at SAAF that have forced the agency to cut its Complementary Therapies program, which helped clients receive free naturopathic services, like massage, chiropractic and acupuncture—and vitamins and supplements through the buyers' club.

Other programs have seen cuts, too, forcing the agency to trim back on core services for the first time in its 21-year history.

According to Wendell Hicks, SAAF executive director, cutting the complementary therapies program wasn't an easy decision—30 people were receiving services that wouldn't have been able to afford them on their own. But private foundation funding was hit hard in this economic upheaval—SAAF was told by funders they were no longer able to be part of Complementary Therapies.

The program was once funded through federal and state dollars, but four years ago naturopathic services used to complement traditional treatments were no longer eligible. SAAF turned to private foundations to keep it going, although it wasn't able to offer the program to as many people as it had in the past.

"A couple of years ago we were serving more than 100 people," SAAF Development Director Michele Bart says.

"It's frustrating, but we have foundations that care very much about complementary funding, but the market hasn't been good for the foundations."

In July, the organization and other local agencies working with HIV/AIDS clients were told there would be cuts in federal funds administered through the state for medications.

In August, they found out the number of medications offered to those who qualified went from eight pages of medications to three pages. And a dental care program for people with HIV/AIDS SAAF administers for the state in all counties, except Maricopa and Pinal, was cut 39 percent this year.

Bart says SAAF clients often walk a fine line, but she's noticed a new set of challenges for them have increased this year—many clients have lost jobs, some are balancing co-pays for medications and doctors' visits with rent and utilities, and the organization is seeing families come in who are or are close to living on the streets.

"If they weren't living in poverty before they contracted the disease, many will be, because the medical costs alone are enough to do that to our clients," Bart says.

The strategy for the organization is, rather than asking its current contributors to give more, to reach out to more people in the community who have never given to SAAF before and ask them to give what they can—$5, $15 or $20.

For example, at this year's AIDSWALK on Oct. 11, although the organization had more people walk this year it didn't raise any more than it had in previous years—but at $158,000, it didn't raise less, either. (Note: After this story was published, SAAF let us know that while the number of AIDSWALK participants was indeed up this year, the amount of money raised was actually down compared to recent years.)

"Even in bad times the community is generous," Hicks says, comparing Tucson to where he lived two years ago working in AIDS care and prevention in east Texas.

"I asked myself my first year, 'What is it about this town when 6,000 people come to the AIDS Walk, but Houston gets only 2,000?' That's remarkable coming from the South."

While almost all nonprofit organizations are hurting from the economy, Hicks and Bart can't help but wonder why funding for HIV/AIDS care and prevention is allowed to be cut since the virus' status as pandemic hasn't changed.

Bart says last year the Centers for Disease Control contacted organizations across the country to admit it made a mistake in tracking those diagnosed in the United States. In previous years, the CDC reported 40,000 people were newly diagnosed each year, but the number is more like 62,000.

"For years, we've been receiving federal funding based on those statistics. And we continue to say, 'We are seeing new clients, seeing more clients.' Every year that client base has grown. There's not been a lot of coverage about that particular issue, and they acknowledge it was their own database system at fault," Bart says.

According to the Pima County Health Department, more than 2,200 people were diagnosed with HIV last year. Hicks says SAAF and other organizations that do testing estimate that about a quarter of the population in Pima County already has HIV, but doesn't know it because they haven't been tested.

While Hicks and Bart meet with other agencies and funding partners to figure out how to keep their work going without doing more harm to services, Wymore continues his work at the buyers' club. A letter was sent out to the 30 people it helped, but not everyone read it, and Wymore has had to tell 12 people so far that he can't give them the vitamins and nutritional supplements they've come to depend on.

Some have purchased what they can, and there are others who weren't part of the program who make their purchases through the club because it is cheaper. The funds from the sales go back to the complementary therapies program for what can be resuscitated in the future.

"But we'd like to open this up to the community. Since we're a nonprofit, we're tax free. They don't have to be clients of SAAF," Wymore explains.

"If people are looking for one way they can give back, they can do that right here."

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