For Immediate Release
Contact : Jean Bergman (212)966-0466 x296 Bob Lederer (212) 242-2163
AIDS Activists Seize State Senate Majority Leader's Office, Demand Restoration of AIDS Medications Budget
Albany, June 11 - Seven AIDS activists organized by Housing Works and ACT UP were arrested here yesterday after storming and occupying the legislative office of State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Rensselaer), demanding full restoration of funding for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP). The protesters, three of whom chained themselves to Bruno's furniture, held the office for three hours until hauled off by rubber-gloved state police.
On January 1, ADAP-a largely federally funded program-suffered the loss of 70% of the medications and all of the nutrients it formerly provided, due to a funding shortage sparked by rising caseloads, newly available medications and exhorbitant drug prices. Several other states use state funds to supplement the program, but New York has never contributed more than $400,000 annually. The AIDS groups charged that the six-month lapse in access to vital medications had led to serious health declines among many people with AIDS and may have caused some deaths. Since the cuts were announced, three new protease inhibitor drugs, shown to be life-extending, have been federally approved, and activists have also been insisting on their coverage by ADAP.
Bruno had refused repeated requests to meet with Housing Works, which provides housing to homeless people with AIDS, to discuss the disastrous effect of these severe cuts to ADAP. The Senator has refused to support appropriating the estimated $32 million necessary to fully fund the program, despite the state's announced budget surplus of $400 million dollars. Since becoming Majority Leader, the right-wing Bruno has been rebuked by colleagues several times for homophobic and racist comments (such as that Blacks and Latinos have their "hands out" for welfare).
Governor George Pataki, who has also rejected adding state funds to the program, had earlier encouraged people with AIDS no longer receiving key ADAP medications to spend down their assets so they would qualify for Medicaid. Meanwhile, he has proposed reducing Medicaid spending in the state (including matching federal funds) by nearly $3 billion.
ADAP allows un- and under-insured working and middle class people with HIV and AIDS to keep working and paying taxes by providing them with life-extending drugs, nutritional supplements, home care and outpatient services. ACT UP member John Riley commented,"The program is short of funds partly because it has been so successful. Many people with HIV and AIDS are able to continue working and remain off of public assistance because they can obtain the care they need to remain healthy."
A broad range of AIDS organizations around the state has waged a campaign against the ADAP cuts since they were announced last November. There have been phone and letter campaigns, lobby trips and legal demonstrations urging the legislature and the Governor to act. On April 28, ACT UP, Housing Works and several other groups sponsored a 300-strong protest against cuts in ADAP, Medicaid and welfare at Pataki's country home in Garrison.
While the Governor has refused to support funding the program, earlier this year a large bipartisan group of Assembly members and three Senators co-sponsored a bill to fully restore the cuts. Yesterday, while the Bruno office takeover was in progress, Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried announced introduction of a more modest bill, supported by Speaker Sheldon Silver, to restore $15 million (about half the estimated shortfall) to next year's ADAP budget. On May 23, after activists learned that Silver had made a budget deal with Bruno that excluded ADAP funds, activists stormed his Manhattan office; the next day he changed his position.
Riley commented, "It became clear to us that the Senate was a key obstacle to restoring the funds, and our traditional lobbying techniques had failed. Since people are dying due to these cuts, we felt we had no choice but to seize the Majority Leader's office-both to heighten pressure on him and to increase public awareness of this issue."
During the occupation, some of the activists posted large images of Bruno with text saying, "Senator Bruno withholds drugs from 10,000 people with AIDS", while others phoned and faxed news organizations. The protestors attempted to negotiate a meeting with Bruno, who was apparently at his Capitol building office. In a brief phone conversation with the Majority Leader and a later 15-minute in-person discussion with his chief of staff, activists insisted that the Senator meet with all seven of them, noting that they represented diverse constitutencies. Bruno refused and had State Police arrest them for trespassing. Police cut the chains binding three protesters to furniture and they were carried out on stretchers; the other four walked. All seven were released several hours later on an unusually high $250 bail each. They will return to court on June 25 to face misdemeanor charges of criminal trespass.
The activists were arrested by officers wearing rubber gloves, a practice widely rejected as unwarranted (given the nonexistent risk of HIV transmission through skin contact). Assembly member Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan) issued a statement condemning the use of gloves.
GOVERNOR GETS ACTIVIST SURPRISE ON THE HOTLINE TO BRUNO
While the direct action group of 7 negotiated in Bruno's inner office with the Majority Leader's Chief of Staff, Governor Pataki-apparently unaware of the occupation-called in on the Pataki-Bruno hot line. ACT UP member John Riley interrupted the call.
"When I saw the hot line flash once and stop, I picked up the line and said hello," Riley recalls.
Pataki asked, "Is there someone else on the line?"
Riley responded, "Yes, I'm one of the AIDS activists occupying Senator Bruno's office in protest of the removal of 70% of the drugs formerly provided by the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP). We are here to demand those drugs be restored to the program."
An exasperated Pataki retorted, "Call me back in a few minutes, Joe", and hung up.
After the phone interchange Mr. Riley rejoined the negotiations with the rather astonished Chief of Staff.
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