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Activists, officials urge mayor to hire CPDH head, reprioritize HIV spending
by Matt Simonette
2019-08-30

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A group of community service providers and social-service agencies—as well as various aldermen and one member of Chicago Board of Health—are calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to hire a Chicago Department of Public Health ( CDPH ) agency head soon and reconfigure how city monies are distributed among agencies fighting HIV/AIDS.

Ald. Raymond Lopez ( 15th Ward ) announced Aug. 28 that he and other alderman were prepared to act legislatively if the administration did not speed things up.

Lopez said in a statement, "If Mayor Lightfoot does not keep her pledge for a nationally-open [search] process, focusing on these funding disparities, we are prepared to introduce an order to the Department of Public Health on Sept. 18, 2019 requiring the department withhold approximately $40 million in HIV/AIDS dollars until a commissioner has been selected from a national search effort focused on bringing equity to communities of color."

Activist Juan Calderon—who is a Board of Health member but emphasized that he was speaking on behalf of agencies serving communities of color and not in an official capacity as a board member—told Windy City Times that myriad South and West Side agencies were continuing to receive diminished funding as monies instead went to North Side-based agencies and hospital systems, increasing the likelihood that smaller South and West Side agencies would eventually have to close their doors.

Among the organizations and initiatives potentially affected by the diminishing funding streams would be Brothers Health Collective, Project Vida, Puerto Rican Cultural Center, TRANS Chicago and Chicago Women's AIDS Project, Calderon said, adding that it was logistically impossible for many of these clinics and programs could not compete with hospitals and federally-qualified health centers.

"It's like requiring small-business owners to compete with Wal-Mart or Target—we cannot compete with corporate America," he added. "The structures that were created have [perpetuated] an axis of failure, where some of these organizations don't have the infrastructure to compete."

Project Vida CEO Jerome Montgomery added that a restructuring of the application process has made it difficult to compete or even take part in that application process.

"The response we get at times is to partner or subcontract with larger organizations who have more infrastructure, but that puts us at their beckon call," he explained. "They can place further restrictions on us. … Major organizations also value their own services over the services we provide. For example, we offer mental health and psychosocial services, but of course hospitals have their own mental health departments as well. So when we're looking to partner on mental health services, they're not interested, and they're not going to fund that. Since we don't qualify independently for funding, our mental health and psychosocial services are at risk of being lost."

Montgomery recalled, in one case, competing for a $100,000 contract, only to be told that Project Vida would qualify for a $5,000 one, a tiny amount for a health service provider. He said that one of the top employees at a partnering organization made more in salary than Project Vida's entire program.

"Here we are, running entire outreach programs, bringing in two or three people and supplies for the same amount they're spending on office staff," he said. "It's not at all equitable."

CDPH Director of Public Affairs Andrew Buchanan responded to the complaints in a statement.

"In order to strengthen HIV services in the city, the Chicago Department of Public Health has engaged in a two-and-a-half year planning process, meeting with hundreds of community stakeholders to gather ideas, concerns and other feedback," said Buchanan. "As a result of this work, CDPH will be contracting with more than 40 unique organizations, many of which will be sub-contracting with other partners, therefore expanding the overall number of funded organizations and ensuring programs reach across communities.

"CDPH is committed to health and racial equity, and to engaging communities and partners throughout the city in our mission to ensure that all Chicago residents are able to live healthy lives. This initiative, which includes $40 million in funding for HIV programs, is reflective of that commitment as well as our goal to end the HIV epidemic in Illinois over the next 10 years (the Getting to Zero initiative)."


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