Grady HIV center avoids ‘devastating’ $4.7 million budget cut

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Grady Health System’s Ponce de Leon Center faced losing one-third of its funding that would have led to “massive” cuts to its HIV program, but lawmakers spared it after approving the new state budget.

Concern arose in May when Gov. Brian Kemp asked state agencies to cut their budgets by 14 percent due to the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on state finances. The Georgia Department of Public Health proposed eliminating its $1.5 million contract to fund Grady Health System’s HIV program as part of its cuts, according to Georgia Health News.

The $1.5 million is matched with federal funds, so the total financial hit would have been $4.7 million, according to Wendy Armstrong, medical director for the Infectious Disease Program at the Ponce de Leon Center.

“This would have been a huge, devastating blow,” she told Project Q Atlanta. “This represents a substantial percentage – more than one-third – of our total funding and would have led to massive cuts in our programs and staff. We would have been unable to provide the same level of services to our patients.”

Kemp later revised the across-the-board cuts from 14 percent to 11 percent, leading GDPH Commissioner Kathleen Toomey to urge a state Senate subcommittee to renew Grady’s HIV program contract in June, according to Georgia Health News.

The state legislature passed a $26 billion budget in late June with the HIV program intact, according to Armstrong. The fiscal year 2021 budget was a $2.2 billion drop from the previous year’s budget, according to the AJC.

Avoiding the cuts will allow the Ponce de Leon Center to continue serving about 6,200 people living with HIV in metro Atlanta. The center has maintained “full services” for its patients throughout the coronavirus pandemic, according to Armstrong.

“At no time did we shut our doors, while simultaneously we expanded our telehealth operations and offered medication delivery,” she said.

The center also restructured to create “COVID-free” zones while evaluating patients suspected of having the virus in a separate area.

“I’ve been very proud of the effort by our staff to continue to provide high-quality care and redouble efforts to be sure that patients don’t lose access to care or medications,” Armstrong said.

The pandemic has not altered plans for a $38 million renovation of the center, Armstrong said. The project will open two floors of the building to medical care, as well as renovate all remaining floors.

“We are thankfully still moving forward with our planned expansion as well as remodeling our existing floors to make it more patient-friendly and space-efficient,” Armstrong said. “We hope to start the project very soon but we must keep the building open and functional throughout.”

“It will be a staged process and will take several years before completion,” she added.

Atlanta has the second-highest rate of new HIV infections among metro areas in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Four metro Atlanta counties – Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett – are targeted as part of the federal plan to end HIV/AIDS by 2030. Forty-eight counties in 19 states, plus seven states overall, are part of the plan.

This story is made possible through a grant from Facebook Journalism Project’s COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund.

Photo by Matt Hennie

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