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Federal HIV/AIDS funding falls short

'It's a lot of smoke and mirrors': Leslie

The Conservative government in Ottawa continues to shortchange frontline Canadian HIV/AIDS service organizations, according to numbers released to the Commons Health Committee by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

While funding to the Federal Initiative to Address HIV/AIDS in Canada will increase this year to $72.6 million, it is still far below the $84.4 million originally planned for the program when the Liberals introduced it in 2004.

“That’s really a drastic reduction, if you look at the 2004 dollars,” says Liberal health critic Ujjal Dosanjh, who was health minister when the Liberals announced the Federal Initiative. “The number of persons with AIDS really hasn’t gone down, and therefore you need to pay more attention.”

Dosanjh calls the increase to $72.6 million “progress for the Conservatives, but not for the country.” But he adds, “I think this government is doing a poor job of showing leadership on these issues.”

In its first year, funding for the Federal Initiative stood at $42.2 million, with a plan to double it within five years. It was on track until 2007/8 when the Harper government redistributed $10.2 million to the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI). The CHVI is billed as a partnership between the government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with $139 million planned spending between 2007 and 2017. Of that amount, $111 million is to come from the government, with the remaining $28 million from the Gates Foundation. But part of the deal with the Gates Foundation stipulates that Canada’s contribution should be new money, rather than funds diverted from other HIV programs.

The CHVI originally included a pilot-scale HIV-vaccine manufacturing facility to be built in Canada. But the building plans were cancelled last year and the remaining funds redistributed to other efforts, mainly in developing countries.

Despite this, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Chief Public Health Officer David Butler-Jones told the Commons health committee that a total of $139 million had been spent to date, confusing the numbers of the Federal Initiative and the planned up-to 2017 total for the CHVI.

When asked by NDP health critic Megan Leslie if there are plans to reach the $84.4 million target in the Federal Initiative, Butler-Jones said, “the discussion of the dollars was an idea; it was not a commitment.”

“I don’t think they have any intention of the $84.4, of keeping that promise, of keeping that commitment at all,” Leslie says. “What that comes down to for me is that the government is completely failing when it comes to what we know works. We know that prevention works, and we know that the folks who are working on the frontline are doing a fantastic job at prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS.

“If we look at the fact that we’re not quite at the $84 million and who is getting shortchanged, I believe it is the frontline organizations.”

Indeed, the breakdown among federal departments funded through the Federal Initiative reveals that the Public Health Agency of Canada, the prime funding body for most HIV and AIDS service providers across the country, has been most affected.

Xtra asked the PHAC for figures prior to 2008, but they did not furnish them before press time and they are not available on their website.

“The available funding for grants and contributions is drastically reduced,” says Stephen Alexander, acting director of programs for the Canadian AIDS Society. “It’s through those grants and contributions that AIDS service organizations receive their project funding, so it does have an impact on the amount of services that they can provide and the continuation of services.”

Department 2008/9 proposed spending 2011 projected spending
PHAC $51.9 million $42.4 million
Canadian Institutes of Health Research $22.6 million $20.6 million
Health Canada $5.7 million $5.4 million
Correctional Services of Canada $4.2 million $4.2 million

The cuts to the Federal Initiative in 2007 – cuts that Butler-Jones denied before the committee – have forced AIDS service organizations to be more “tactical” says Alexander, noting that some agencies have reduced direct-to-client services, while others have been forced to cut program funding.

“We do know that across the board, the lack of funding has meant there are services and programs that are shut down,” Alexander says. “We do know that there are agencies that no longer exist because they’re no longer receiving the federal funding.”

Dosanjh says he is also curious about the $4.2 million allocated to Correctional Services of Canada. Though he says the funds are likely for HIV prevention and education in prisons, as opposed to medication, the demand will likely increase, given the rising number of inmates.

“The number of inmates is going up because of these asinine crime-and-justice policies that are borrowed from the US,” says Dosanjh. “I would say that $4.2 million isn’t enough. The other issue is, is it really being dedicated to HIV education, prevention and awareness, or is it being utilized in the otherwise bloated prisons for other areas where they are now short of funds?”

For Leslie, there is an issue of transparency about how federal HIV/AIDS dollars are spent.

“It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, trying to make sure that we don’t question what’s going on and trying to make sure that we don’t know what’s going on, which is frustrating, but also dangerous,” says Leslie. “It shouldn’t be this hard to figure out where money is.”