Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Time to Step up and Help the Montana Gay Men’s Task Force: We Can’t Afford to Lose It!

Budget cuts could mean less opportunities
for free and anonymous HIV testing
When I first began testing the waters outside the fortified walls of my closet 13 years ago I felt scared, confused, tormented and alone. I had thoughts of suicide. I thought for sure I would drown. I recall a depressed, drunken night on a trip to Denver when I engaged in unprotected sex. In my naivety, I felt for sure I would die of AIDS. I had no one to turn to; no one to talk to.

Based in my hometown of Missoula, Montana, the Task Force is led by gay men – men who had been where I was, had felt the way I did, could relate, emphasize and provide help and support. I felt safe privately and discretely consulting with their professional and dedicated staff; I attended gay men retreats they put on; I learned about HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections and diseases; I learned about safe sex; I felt relieved to have access to free and anonymous testing the task force provides for men like me who have sex with men, conducted by men like me who have sex with men. I trusted them. I still do.

Without them, I would not be as confident and comfortable with myself as I am today. I might not even be alive.

I’m not the only one.

“It’s difficult to measure how many people we have helped, and how many diseases and infections we’ve prevented,” says Task Force Director David Herrera. “But there is no doubt that we have.”

No doubt indeed! Considering that Herrera has been involved in HIV prevention, testing and counseling for nearly 30 years I have no doubt the people he has helped, including me, number in the thousands.

Where would people like me be without the Task Force? Unfortunately, we may soon find out.

A victim of sequestration (automatic federal budget cuts put into law by the Budget Control Act of 2011) Herrera may have no choice but to reduce services such as retreats and outreach efforts. With cuts in federal funding the Task Force budget just took a $20,000 hit. And that’s the second wave of cuts. “We’ve lost 50 percent of our funding in the past 3-4 years,” Herrera says. “And we’re already operating on a bare-bones budget.”

The cuts come at a time when the Task Force has greatly expanded its cadre of well-trained counselors who provide testing, support and community-building throughout Montana, including among Two-Spirited people within indigenous Native American tribes and in rural parts of eastern Montana where diseases such as Gonorrhea are on the rise. Although sequestration is effecting organizations all over the nation rural states like Montana are experiencing the largest cuts.

“This is a time when we should be expanding our efforts, not eliminating programs,” Herrera says. “But there is limited federal dollars, so we are now cutting up the pie rather than adding to it.”

It’s a risky thing to do, and could prove costly.

“The cuts could ultimately cost more than they save in both money and lives,” Herrera says. “It’s a lot more cost effective to prevent HIV and other infections and diseases than it is to pay for treatments for people who become infected.”

What can be done? Herrera has several suggestions: Contact Senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus, and Congressman Steve Daines, and demand that federal funding for HIV prevention, testing and counseling be restored. Also contact the Montana State Health Department and Governor Steve Bullock and demand that state funding be made available for these critical programs. (Two employees of the Task Force, Chantz Thilmony and Christopher Gehring, recently received well-deserved Governor’s Awards for their tremendous outreach efforts to help prevent HIV infections in Montana).

In the meantime, personal contributions from all of us can help keep the Task Force afloat. Donations can be made through the Tasks Force’s website: www.mtgayhealth.org, or mailed to:

Montana Gay Men’s Task Force
P.O. Box 7984
Missoula, MT  59807.

I plan to make a donation as soon as I finish writing this; I urge you all to do the same. 

Let’s step up and support the organization that has long supported us. We NEED the Montana Gay Men’s Task Force!