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‘Obviously it’s going to fail’

AIDS groups skeptical of BC's progress on prevention

FAILING GRADE: 'The report card took credit for work that was being done in the province but that the province had absolutely no input in,' says BC Persons with AIDS Chair Paul Lewand. Credit: Rosamond Norbury photo

Vancouver’s largest HIV/AIDS groups are dismayed and confused by a recently released government report on BC’s strategic plan for managing the AIDS epidemic.

The Priorities for Action plan, created in September 2003, aimed to reduce new HIV infections in BC by 50 percent by 2007. The new report assessing the plan’s progress, released this summer, says the government is still committed to meeting that goal and outlines the steps already being taken.

But both the BC Persons with AIDS Society (BCPWA) and AIDS Vancouver say the report does not paint an accurate picture of the progress, or lack thereof, being made on HIV/AIDS issues in the province.

The report does not detail where the government has succeeded and where it has failed in the battle to control HIV/AIDS, says Phillip Banks, director of prevention for AIDS Vancouver.

Despite the 2003 action plan, the number of new HIV infections is once again on the rise in BC.

Paul Lewand, chair of BCPWA, is also disappointed with the government’s progress report.

“The report card took credit for work that was being done in the province but that the province had absolutely no input in,” he says. “They took examples of programs haphazardly that were being done, but that were being paid for either by private services or Health Canada.”

Lewand points to BCPWA’s Prison Outreach Program as one such example. That program-which gets a full-page profile in the progress report-receives only a “tiny” amount of money from the province for operating expenses, he says. The majority of its money comes from private funders and Health Canada, a branch of the federal government.

“It’s a kind of toothless report card,” says Banks, echoing Lewand that the report mostly outlines work that was done by others, and not by the province.

“And they can’t even say that [they] funded that work well,” Banks adds. “There’s no accountability mechanism.”

The progress report also makes no mention of increased funding to counter gay men’s HIV infections, though there is a clearly reported increase in HIV infections among gay men.

The number of new HIV infections among BC’s gay men hit a low in 1999 with 106 new infections, according to numbers compiled as part of the 2004 Sex Now survey, a project of Vancouver’s Community Based Research Centre.

But in 2000 there were 144 positive test results among gay men; in 2001 there were 153; in 2002 there were 160; in 2003 there were 159; and in 2004 there were 180 new positive test results.

“There’s nothing in the progress report to suggest that they actually made any shift in how they’re going to approach gay men’s prevention for next year,” says Banks. He notes that AIDS Vancouver is the only group directly funded to do gay men’s AIDS prevention in the province but says the funding amount “is negligible.”

When contacted by Xtra West for comment on the progress report, Rafe Mooney, a spokesperson for the BC Ministry of Health, said the report has generated discussion between the ministry, the health authorities and AIDS service organizations. Mooney says the goal of the progress report was to provide an overview for the government and health authorities of what’s happening in the province.

“The Ministry of Health wanted to make sure that every health authority was aware of what each other health authority was doing and, really, to provide some ‘best practice’ examples,” says Mooney.

“This wasn’t designed to say, ‘We are at this point.’ It was designed to say, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ And we’ve got these pretty significant goals to make by 2007,” he adds.

Meanwhile, the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) is only now in the process of creating its own strategic plan in order to meet the goals outlined in Priorities for Action. The PHSA is the BC health agency responsible for province-wide health matters not covered by the other regional health authorities.

Janice Duddy is the HIV/AIDS coordinator for the PHSA and was hired earlier this fall to work on the strategic plan, a process still in its very early phases.

Duddy says she hopes the first planning committee meeting will happen in early 2006, “but we can’t yet speculate when the strategic plan will be completed. We’re not quite sure yet.”

Duddy also could not say who the members of the planning committee are. “That also hasn’t been finalized yet, but they’ll be stakeholders from the PHSA.”

Lewand says BCPWA has not been invited to that first meeting, though the strategic plan created by the PHSA will affect his organization.

“I think it is the right move for the PHSA to try to make a province-wide plan, but unless there’s direction from the Ministry of Health,” he says, “the health authorities, understandably, are going to find higher priorities.”

Lewand is not optimistic that the PHSA plan will make a great impact without new funding dollars introduced by the provincial government.

He is also troubled by the timing of the PHSA plan’s creation, coming more than two years after Priorities for Action was released.

“It’s a little concerning to come up with the way to do something two years after you’ve said this is what we have to do. It’s a joke,” he says.

Says Banks, “You have someone in 2005, almost 2006, developing a plan for how the province is going to meet a reduction by 50 percent for 2007. I mean, that just doesn’t seem strategic or effective.”

When asked if the government will meet its goal of a 50 percent reduction in new infections, Mooney says he “wouldn’t want to pre-guess that. The government is committed to making that goal.”

Lewand predicts the province won’t make that goal of a 50 percent reduction and that it would be more useful to start looking further into the future.

“From the moment they made Priorities for Action, they forgot about it. They forgot if you’re going to ask people to do some work, they’re going to need money to do that work.

“Obviously it’s going to fail. Completely, horribly.”