The cruelest cut: AIDS patients find no room in the Republican budget/Test Anxiety | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

The cruelest cut: AIDS patients find no room in the Republican budget/Test Anxiety 

In the dawn of their November triumph, drunk with power from having captured the Senate and the House, Republicans vowed to lead a revolution against federal spending. They hardened their hearts and blocked their ears to the cries of the sick and the poor.

"If Republicans get spooked the first time someone tries to demagogue that issue [fairness] we will be in deep trouble," Republican strategist William Kristol said in a symposium sponsored by Harper's. "Republicans will need to have thick skins to survive the fairness attack."

Bolstered by such rhetoric, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his legion of right-wing devotees hacked $17 billion from this year's federal budget.

That means, among many other things, that residents of Bonaventure House, a Catholic-run north-side hospice for AIDS patients, might be booted out of their beds so that a few hundred thousand dollars might one day be diverted into tax breaks for millionaires.

Welcome to the revolution, Chicago.

"It's going to be a tough year if things keep going the way they are," says Tim McCormick, executive director of Bonaventure House. "I have a bad feeling it's only going to get worse."

The cuts that threaten Bonaventure House were part of Gingrich's recently passed recession plan. Although Gingrich and his acolytes say more money will be cut, it's not clear how much of the current cuts will survive the Senate, whose Republican members display less fortitude than Kristol advocates.

The confusion in Washington makes the future even more uncertain for social service providers such as the Catholic brothers at Bonaventure House.

"It's distressing on our residents," says McCormick. "If you listen to the beats of the drum it is clear that we're very vulnerable, even if specific proposals change day to day."

What's surprising is that the Right would go after an organization like Bonaventure House, a model of privately managed charity.

The residence is managed by the Alexian brothers, whose missionary commitment to the sick and the poor goes back to the Black Death in the Middle Ages. (Bonaventure House is named for Brother Bonaventure Thelen, the first Alexian brother to move to the United States.)

"For more than 650 years, this Roman Catholic community of men has attempted to meet the unmet needs of the marginated and outcast of society," Bonaventure's promotional pamphlet reads. "Strengthened by community, prayer and commitment to the poor, the Alexian Brothers give witness to the Healing Christ by a holistic approach to promoting health and caring for the sick, dying, and aged of all socioeconomic levels."

There are 30 beds in Bonaventure House, which provides around-the-clock staff coverage for its residents. "There are several criteria for entrance," says McCormick. "You have to be diagnosed with AIDS, you have to demonstrate that your financial resources are exhausted, and that you have a willingness to live with a community."

When it opened in 1989 its residents were almost all gay white men. Now there are blacks, whites, Hispanics, and women living there. "As the AIDS crisis changes our residents change," says McCormick. "We're open to all--race or religion does not matter. About 95 percent of our residents are not Catholic. It's an open door in time of need. We have conducted Catholic and Protestant and Jewish services here.

"Our model is independent living. Each resident has his or her own room. But there are group rooms and common meals and we organize outings to museums or parks or even Great America."

The average stay is 170 days, though some residents have lived there more than three years. At any given time there's a waiting list of two to ten people. The organization has won several care awards. Once a year it hosts a fund-raiser featuring performances by opera stars; last year Placido Domingo and Susanne Mentzer performed and over $100,000 was raised.

But Bonaventure cannot subsist on donations and fund-raisers alone; it receives about $400,000 of its roughly $1 million annual budget from the federal government.

"The federal money comes from two sources--Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS, or HOPWA, and the Ryan White program, which pays for a lot of other services," says McCormick. "HOPWA supports bricks and mortar and Ryan White pays for services."

The Republicans in the House have proposed to cut HOPWA's $186 million budget in half, which would mean a loss of at least $25,000 from Bonaventure's budget.

In February a House subcommittee chaired by North Shore congressman John Porter voted to cut $13 million from Ryan White programs. But that money was restored by a vote of the House Appropriations Committee, according to Dave Kohn, Porter's press secretary.

"We have to recognize that there's a serious budget crisis, and that was the idea behind the original budget cut," says Kohn. "But we also have to recognize that AIDS is a serious health problem."

The Republicans decided to restore the Ryan White funds after cutting federal energy programs. "Congressman Porter voted to restore the Ryan White money after he realized that the savings could come somewhere else," says Kohn. "So there's no inconsistency between his votes."

Kohn also downplays the pressure Porter, a moderate Republican, faces from the Gingrichian Right. "Porter has always been a fiscal conservative," says Kohn. "There's a lot of pressure to toe the line in Washington, but I don't think moderates like Porter feel it as much as some of the freshman congressmen."

But the fact that a moderate Republican would lead the fight to cut AIDS spending distresses Bonaventure's supporters, who point out that the proposed cuts are self-defeating, since they will only drive up the cost of caring for the indigent.

"I don't like to argue dollars and cents when the issue should be about compassion," says McCormick. "But it costs about $85 a day to keep a resident at Bonaventure House. The average cost in a hospital is about $1,000. If the federal budget cuts close beds in places like Bonaventure House, that just means more people will be going to the emergency rooms. People are sick. Cutting federal funds will not cure AIDS--they will have to go somewhere. In the name of saving money, the Republicans will wind up spending more money. I fear that in today's climate we won't win much support talking about the needs of sick people. Maybe they'll hold off on the cuts if they think it will save them some money."

For the moment, McCormick assumes Bonaventure will have to offset at least $25,000 in budget cuts or else slash services.

"We will try to raise the money from private donors," says McCormick. "But it will be difficult because everyone else will be out there looking for that money as well."

Test Anxiety

Five months ago firefighter Rich Edgeworth was so frustrated he did something city workers rarely do: he publicly criticized the Daley administration for not releasing the results of firefighter exams (Neighborhood News, November 25, 1994).

"I took the fire battalion test in November 1993," says Edgeworth, a captain from the southwest side. "I thought if I made a stink I'd get the results, or a good explanation for the delay."

Well, five more months have passed and Edgeworth's received nothing but a runaround. "I got directed to a City Hall employee named Adrienne, who's the mayor's testing consultant," says Edgeworth. "She said they were waiting for an outside consultant to finish an analysis of the results to see how they conform with affirmative action requirements. Then I called the company that was doing the report and they told me they had sent it to the city. So I called Adrienne back and said, "I talked to the test maker and I happen to know you have the report.' She said: "OK, the report is there; are you happy?' But if you call the city's special test-result hot line they'll tell you they're waiting for the report. That tape's dated February 2. That shows you how little they care about this issue."

Lately, Mayor Daley has said police and fire promotions have been delayed while the city looks for ways to guarantee that blacks, Hispanics, whites, and women are fairly treated. But Edgeworth contends that the mayor uses affirmative action as a scapegoat to shield City Hall's incompetence. "All I want to know is how I scored on a test I took 16 months ago. Is that too much to ask?" says Edgeworth. "We risk our lives every day only to be treated like garbage by City Hall."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Paul Merideth.

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