Executive director of ACR Health says organization has closed three offices for lack of adequate funding
By Mary Beth Roach
Once known as the AIDS Task Force of CNY and then AIDS Community Resources, ACR Health offers a wide variety of services, with a focus on helping those with life-threatening challenges. It has a number of contracts with the state of New York to provide those services, but the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult for the state to make payments. Ultimately, it’s impacting ACR’s abilities to continue its work. To date, it has had to close three offices and furlough nearly half of its staffers. They are owed approximately $1.232 million through May, and that amount will only increase when the vouchers for June come due. Wil Murtaugh began as a volunteer with the agency in 1992 and has been director since April, 2016.
Q: What does your agency do?
A: We were formed in 1983 by Gov. Mario Cuomo to address the HIV-AIDS epidemic. He formed 13 or 14 community service programs to address HIV AIDs, and now we’re addressing HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C epidemic, sexually-transmitted infection epidemic, the opiate-substance abuse epidemic. We also have 14 health insurance navigators, and we also have eight Q Centers that we’re running throughout nine counties for LGBT youth and their families.
Q: How has that work evolved over the years and why?
A: We grew from being an agency that death with HIV-AIDS to one that handles multiple issue. Hepatitis C is a new epidemic with 18-30-plus year-olds because of ingested drug use. The opiate substance abuse epidemic is huge. We have the syringe exchange program, so we’ve seen a lot of overdoses and a lot of deaths.
Q: How big is your service area?
A: It’s nine counties, from Herkimer and Cayuga up to St. Lawrence County. We have eight offices, but we’re closing three right now as a cost-saving measure. We’re closing our Canton office, one of our Watertown offices and one office in Syracuse [as of early July].
Q: What are the services you’ve been providing during this pandemic?
A: We’ve been providing everything. We are considered essential by the state of New York. Yet, we’re not getting paid, which is really upsetting. We’ve been doing care management, we’ve been doing health insurance enrollment. I think in three weeks in March, we enrolled 1,300 for health insurance because they lost their jobs. We’ve been providing syringe exchange. Our Q Centers have been operating. Our support services for people that are HIV-positive and chronically ill have been operating. We did put testing on hold for a bit. Now, we’re doing testing for HIV, hepatitis C, sexually transmitted infections by appointment only in Utica and Syracuse. Our Drug User Health Hub, which is for people who are addicted to get medical assistance, has been open the entire time.
Q: Your agency is facing a lot of problems with the fallout from the pandemic. What has the impact been on the agency?
A: We furloughed 70 out of 155 staff [in early July], which really has been devastating. We have contracts going back to December-January that have not been paid yet. That puts a huge cramp on us. They’re supposed to pay within 30 days after we’re vouchered. All programs are working on a limited basis except health insurance and our health-home care management are working full time. But the Q Centers are very limited right now, and it can be really devastating for kids who are trying to figure out who they are and what they are, not to see other kids and be around other kids, or even do a Zoom meeting with their kids to maybe learn a little bit about themselves.
Q: What has the state’s response?
A. It’s been really deathly silent, which is really confusing to me. We know we’re in the middle of a COVID epidemic, but can you tell us you’re going to shut off the faucet for a while? That might have been able to help us prepare a little better. But they did not. [In early July], they finally came through and said they’re going to start paying some of our outstanding vouchers. I asked, ‘How many do you have outstanding? And she said, ‘Right now we have $608,662.17 that we’re going to pay.’ Hopefully, we’re going to get some money in here soon.
Q: Is there any light at the end of this tunnel for you?
A: The Gov. Cuomo has done a phenomenal job with COVID in this state. I’m hoping he can do a phenomenal job in getting federal help and brokering a deal with the Feds to help pay off some of the debts that we have. Also, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews, and I just do a call to action. Please call your local assembly member, your local senator, your congressman and ask them to help get ACR Health their funding. We deal with populations that no one else deals with, and I can’t imagine us not being here.