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Protest targets cuts in AIDS education funding

Body bags lined the median strip in front of the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue Wednesday afternoon as about 200 protesters demanded Gov. Rendell restore $2 million in HIV education funding.

State money for HIV prevention in Philadelphia was cut by $1.7 million during the last fiscal year, said Kate Kozeniewski, a spokeswoman for the AIDS activist group ACT UP! And the state's proposed budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year likely will cut $2 million from what initially had been $4.8 million, she said.

"That amounts to a 40 percent decrease of the money once slated for AIDS education in Philadelphia," Kozeniewski said.

Beginning at noon, protesters jammed the sidewalk in front of the luxury hotel for an hour. They waved banners, beat drums, and chanted "Act up, fight back, give us our money back," "Shame, shame, shame," and "Over our dead bodies."

Gov. Rendell, who has offices at the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue, was in Washington D.C. and did not see the demonstration, a spokesman said.

The state, faced with a $3.2 billion deficit during the past fiscal year, pared a wide variety of programs, said Janice Kopelman, a deputy secretary for health promotion and disease prevention in the Pennsylvania Department of Health who oversees AIDS funding.

"Difficult cuts were made and we can't say the revenue for the Commonwealth [for the 2010-11 fiscal year] is much better than it was last year," Kopelman said.

She said despite the cuts, Philadelphia still receives proportionately more funding for HIV/AIDS prevention than other areas of the state.

"Right now we're trying to maintain the core services - HIV counseling and HIV testing," she said. "But funds for health education and risk reduction have been reduced in Philadelphia as they have been in the rest of the state."

The cuts this year have forced several city programs to shut down, Kozeniewski said, including the North Philadelphia MomMobile and Safety Counts programs. Other outreach are struggling to find alternative funding.

If the cuts on the proposed 2010-11 budget go through, nearly 8,000 fewer people will receive HIV testing, 4,000 fewer will receive HIV prevention and risk reduction services, and 24 jobs will be lost, according to Philadelphia FIGHT, an AIDS services organization that has provided some of the programs.