The world of AIDS Service Organizations is not the same as it was in the 1990s. There are fewer agencies, with fewer resources, covering broader areas. In order to survive, organizations across the state know that the time has come to stop working in their own bubbles, collaborate on projects, and listen to their donors.
Emerging from this cooperative spirit, is a new campaign by Michigan AIDS Coalition (MAC) and AIDS Partnership Michigan (APM) called the Red Ribbon Remembrance.
The campaign makes it easy for people to chip in toward the fight against HIV and AIDS by using one fundraising mechanism to funnel resources to multiple agencies. The program is being tested by the two agencies, which serve southeast Michigan, in hopes that other agencies will join in as the campaign grows.
In April, the nine ASOs remaining in Michigan gathered for an unprecedented work session where they discussed the state of ASO funding, challenges they may face as the nation’s healthcare system changes, and opportunities to work together. Traditionally agencies have worked independently from one another, sometimes even competitively. The limited funding from grant opportunities, and the fact that organizations had their own specialties made isolation the norm.
Emerging from that meeting with the first collaboration was MAC Chief Operating Officer Terry Ryan and APM Chief Operating Officer William VanHemert, who both recently moved into the leadership positions at their respective organizations.
Their friendship actually dates back to 1989, when VanHemert was volunteering at Wellness Network on a hotline program that Ryan was running at the time. “We’ve stayed in touch over the years as we’ve both been in and out of AIDS work,” VanHemert said, “and now we’re working together again.”
Ryan considers the collaboration historic, and said he hopes that the teamwork is “an opportunity to create trust” that can lead to more partnerships. “There’s this fear that in order to work together organizations have to merge, and that’s not the case. We all have our own place in this. Working together doesn’t take away from what any one organization does, it makes us all stronger.”
Money collected through the Red Ribbon Remembrance Campaign is considered “unrestricted funds,” meaning that organizations can use it to pay for any expenses. “The majority of the money we currently get comes from the Michigan Department of Community Health which is earmarked for specific programs,” Ryan explained. “A lot of grant money is specific. Unrestricted funds help us keep the lights on, pay rent, and give us flexibility in the services we provide.”
Both organizations have suffered cutbacks in grant funding, corporate donations and personal donations. “Even traditional supports are focused on other things, like the marriage equality issue,” Ryan said. “We’ve done such a good job in terms of getting the message out there and in advances, that people don’t realize what a problem HIV still is. And it is still our community that is at the highest risk. We’re at a point that people don’t feel like it’s a danger. It’s the third generation of the epidemic. A lot of clients don’t know anyone who has died of HIV, or even someone living with it. We are re-introducing this discussion to our youth.”
VanHemert added, “If we are going to stop this, the LGBTQIA community needs to come back and take ownership of the AIDS issue.”
The biggest battles for ASOs come in the form of the unknowns. “We have more questions than answers,” Ryan said.
In the past the government set aside special funding for HIV and AIDS in the form of the Ryan White Act. “We have not heard yet about Ryan White,” VanHermert said. “It’s the only carve-out for federal funding and it comes up for renewal so it’s always an uphill battle.” Without certainty that they will get federal funding, it’s hard for ASOs to plan budgets and programing in advance.
He also said that Ryan White funding ensures partnerships with pharmaceutical companies to make sure patients get the most up-to-date medicines, a benefit that could disappear if funding does.
Another area of uncertainty is when the Affordable Care Act kicks in.
“There’s a lot of discussion, but we don’t know what will happen,” VanHemert said. One speculation is that as low income people gain insurance, the responsibility for care will fall to general practitioners and federally-qualified health clinics. Ryan added that it could mean investing resources in educating doctors and care providers about HIV prevention and treatment.
“One thing is the Michigan Department of Community Health is considering re-classifying HIV as a ‘chronic disease.’ It used to be an epidemic and a pandemic. But as a chronic disease they can go to what’s called a ‘medical model,’ where the emphasis is on treatment – take a pill and you’re fine – rather than on prevention,” VanHemert said. “One problem with that is that there is still not a cure for AIDS, so a medical model can only go so far.”
“Prevention is still the most cost effective and most compassionate way of reducing HIV,” Ryan said. “We need this work to continue. Hopefully this new spirit of cooperation will help attract new donors and convince donors that have donor fatigue to reconsider investing in our community.”
MAC offers several prevention programs, including a drop in center in the New Center area of Detroit where young African-American men who have sex with men ages 14-29 can come and feel safe. They offer testing and condoms and have even expanded their scope to include syphlys and hepitits C. Their Empowerment Program gives youth the tools to make good decisions, and they’ve expanded into a transgender-specific group for that community. MAC’s fundraising efforts have been successfully tied to large community events in Ferndale, with restaurants during Dining Out for Life, and with DIFFA: DINING BY DESIGN, which connects the design community with the cause. Learn more about MAC at http://michiganaidscoalition.org/.
APM is celebrating their 30th anniversary. They provide prevention programs as well as medical case management. A re-entry program reaches out to people in jails to give individuals support and education while assisting them return to their community upon release. Their youth program, REC Boys is also an empowerment-based program meant to enable young men. Their Status Sexy campaign opened up dialogue about safer sex and knowing one’s status, making it sexy to discuss. They also do prevention, testing and counseling, and even offer a men’s testing initiative and couples-based program.