It’s 1987 and the Grim Reaper looms menacingly through grey mist on our television screens to warn Australians about the threat of AIDS.
In scenes akin to a horror movie, the commercial depicts a group of men, women and children diagnosed with the disease lined up as bowling pins.
A cloaked skull with scythe in hand appears and bowls over the group, their bodies pushed aside to make way for more dead.
Thirty-one years later, people with the blood borne virus are still being knocked down, this time by a State Government which has unceremoniously dumped some of our most marginalised people off its specialist services radar.
As part of $2.5 million in funding cuts from a budget of $130 million, the Government will axe Centacare’s Cheltenham Place support service by the end of the year – without any consultation or, seemingly, due consideration of the facts.
The Government characterises Cheltenham as essentially a homelessness service supporting individuals whose conditions can be well controlled. Wrong!
Among other things, Cheltenham is demonstrably a hospital avoidance service which is saving the Government purse far more than its modest $411,000 operational sting each year.
Cheltenham provides many specialist supports and respite accommodation to people living with HIV and their carers. It is a safe place for them, away from stigma and discrimination; set up to meet –psychosocial and medical needs.
In 17/18, the service worked with nearly 100 people, including those recently diagnosed with HIV, and facilitated 10 early hospital discharges and 37 hospital avoidances.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare research shows that conservatively calculated, that has saved the health budget more than $800,000.
As Minister Wade seems to only have considered the dollars, he will find that this service has saved a minimum $400,000 overall.
Of course there are many other people we support to maintain their physical and mental health but who are not seen as imminently at risk but would be without Cheltenham.
The clients we work with have high and complex needs. Most have diagnosed mental health issues. Some have drug and alcohol challenges, physical disabilities and, yes, others have experienced homelessness.
However despite the Government’s assertions, Centacare is experienced in addressing homelessness and is able to professionally meet that need.
Whilst today’s medications for HIV are always improving, they need to be taken routinely every day, over time, to take effect.
When people experience crisis or are living in unsafe or chaotic situations, often the first thing to go is self-care and, with it, the specialist and general medications that control symptoms and severity of illness.
That’s right, the same medications that are so effective they warrant the Government skittling $1.3 million funding for sexually transmitted infections and blood borne viruses.
So, now, not only are those living with HIV at risk, but there is an increase risk to the wider community as the virus becomes transmittable if medications are not adhered to. This all puts more pressure on an already struggling health system.
It is offensive to suggest there are more appropriate agencies better placed than Centacare (with its 20-year track record in the sector) to provide specialist support to people living with HIV and their carers.
The stigma and discrimination they feel, and the grief, trauma and social isolation this manifests, stymies both their capacity and motivation to engage with mainstream services.
In this context, Cheltenham’s role as a conduit between the client and non-specialist services to not only link people to mainstream supports but ensure that they stay engaged with them has never been so important. Oh, the irony!
HIV did not go away with the Grim Reaper when the commercial was taken off air due to mounting public hysteria over an illness about which Australians were then uninformed.
Our State Government has now removed the only specialist HIV respite and outreach support service in South Australia. So what has really changed in thirty one years?
We still suffer uninformed outcomes.
Dale West is Director of Centacare Catholic Family Services