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Saturday 10 October 2015

Behind the closure of BP Wellington

Posted in: Health & HIV, Features
By Jay Bennie - 1st September 2015

Body Positive's Wellington presence has been housed in this Courtenay Place building.
Under-funded and under-used by its predominantly gay and bi male HIV-positive members, Body Positive's support, advice and administration office in Wellington will close in four weeks time.

As a cost-cutting measure the organisation will also relinquish of a part of its Auckland premises. (See Daily News story here.)

It's no secret that Body Positive as a whole has traditionally struggled to get funding, with public health money only starting to be provided just over three years ago. The Wellington office was not funded in this way and opened on a wing and a prayer, with its bills paid through a very fragile set of funding arrangements

BP's Chair, Ashley Barratt, says it has been apparent for some time that there was a serious overall funding issue.

“Probably ever since we agreed as a board to open the Wellington office two years ago, the board has been actively monitoring the performance of the organisation,” he says. “We've talked about the fact that finances were tight and we were looking at what we could do.”

The Wellington closure is, Barratt says, a result of insufficient funding to run it and fewer than expected HIV-positive gay and bi people using it. “When the board agreed to open Wellington we set some targets and we are a long way from meeting those, and so there was very little option.” The two issues began to publicly collide at BP's AGM and resulted in yesterdays announcement.

How many people were accessing the BP Wellington service? Barratt doesn't give actual numbers, but does say that “it was a disappointment to me personally and to the board in general that the use of the office on a regular basis wasn't what we had anticipated. Auckland, as a drop-in centre, is reasonably well supported but Wellington was not. Respecting that the size of the population is somewhat different that still doesn't account for the fact that we just weren't getting the utilisation of the centre that we'd anticipated.”

How will the services, somewhere to relax in the company of other HIV-positive men, and to access advice and advocacy, be provided for the Wellington region from now on?

“They will be supported in way that our members in other parts of New Zealand will be supported. Part of the strategy we are trying to adopt is to be a national organisation. In terms of the funding that we get from the Ministry of Health we've made a commitment to them to be a national agency. So the Let's Talk About HIV discussion series that we are running this month is intended to be a way of getting some advocacy into the whole of New Zealand.”

Barratt says this will be done “through our 0800 number and through our members who are regional representatives... we hope that we can provide some of the services that we have [previously] been providing in physical premises. Obviously we will need to try as best we can to cater for everybody's needs and I know that [Executive Director] Mark [Fisher] and the rest of the staff are attentive to that.

“And we've been talking to the NZ AIDS Foundation for some time to see what they might be able to do to support us.

How do the board members from outside Auckland, and particularly from the Wellington region, feel about this closure and change in the way Body Positive carries out its work?

“As a board we are resigned to having to do this for the financial stability and viability of the agency. I think all of the board members would be aligned to that. We've certainly paid specific attention to Wellington board members present and past in the decisions that we've taken. And in terms of support on the ground the Wellington board members are going to be more focused on responding to this in a practical and local sense.”

After Fisher came into the Executive Director job, in November last year, the feedback he said he had been getting from its HIV-positive members around the country was that they thought Body Positive was very 'Auckland-centric' and they wanted more, and more readily available, access to support services. How does this closure sit with that desire expressed by the organisations non-Auckland membership?

“In a sense it's linked to it,” says Barratt. “We're focusing our resources on a peer-led organisation of volunteers which we are developing through a leadership organisation called PLDI, the Positive Living Development Institute, which comes out of Canada and more lately Australia. The first of the PLDI courses will be run in New Zealand later this year... and the intention of the board is that we have around twenty graduates of PLDI by the end of next year and those people will be active in the community in supporting the work that we do.

"We are trying to become a more 'virtual' organisation but to be peer-led in the way we deliver our services. That's based on the understanding that our services are facing greater demand from more people living with HIV and the likelihood of declining income as HIV becomes accepted more as a chronic illness and not a death sentence.”

How do the grass-roots members feel about this change?

“We had a number of members come to the questions part of the [recent] AGM. We heard them, and that dialogue with members is open and the board and Mark are completely willing to be in dialogue with members. The point was made that we are a membership organisation, for the members, by the members.”

In their letter yesterday Barratt and Fisher said that HIV as a health issue is likely to receive less funding in the future... are they referring there to Ministry of Health funding or to the more ad-hoc funding sources?

“We are probably talking about both. I'm keen that this isn't portrayed as the Ministry reducing its funding for Body Positive... because the Ministry has increased its funding for us in recent times. But they have advised us that the funding that is available for the HIV sector is likely to remain at the level it is now or be reduced. And our conversations with pharmaceutical companies is that many of these drugs are falling out of patent, or coming to the end of patent, and that the amount of funding that comes from pharmaceutical companies is likely to be at a static level. Looking forward, we have to try to do more with less. I know that other agencies in this sector are also contemplating exactly the same constraints.”

Like Body Positive, the much larger NZ AIDS Foundation has been for several years grappling with a static level of Government funding while inflation nibbles away at what that funding will provide.

In their letter Barratt and Fisher seem to say that non-Ministry funding is less secure, presumably meaning funding from charitable trusts and similar sources. But that's not a recent phenomenon. Such funding has always been insecure in that Body Positive has for years had to continuously apply and reapply for the money with no guarantees from year to year as to what it will get.

“That's correct. What we are meaning by that is that our Ministry of Health funding contract is for three years and we just started our second three year contract a few months ago but beyond that we have no certainty from one year to the next. We appreciate the funding of everybody that supports us but that funding is limited to that financial year and so we are reliant on constantly applying. Our assessment is that non-secure funding is likely to be more vulnerable going forward.

“If we talk to any other health sectors outside HIV they are also experiencing that. In HIV the chronic illness situation means that it is competing for funding against the likes of obesity and other illnesses.”

Fisher indicated earlier this year that he foresaw a much more beefed-up fundraising programme for drawing money from the gay community with activities such as he has seen running in Canada. Has anything been done to work up that funding stream?

“In our strategic plan one of our three priorities is to work on our funding programme. So the board is absolutely committed to try to explore any avenues that we can. More specifically, we are working on an expanded World AIDS Day programme this year when we will focus on a week of events including fundraising activity which will try to appeal to people throughout the community."

Jay Bennie - 1st September 2015

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