LGBT centers fear drastic impact if agreement not reached on ‘fiscal cliff’

Lorri Jean

Chances are, if you are even remotely plugged into the news, you’ve grown weary of hearing about the “fiscal cliff.” That’s the metaphor du jour for the sudden and dramatic cuts in federal spending and tax breaks set to occur at midnight on December 31 unless Congress and President Obama can agree upon a budget that makes sufficient progress toward reducing the federal debt.

Nearly every American will be significantly affected if the federal government goes over the “fiscal cliff” without an agreement. Most will pay $2,000 to $3,000 more in federal taxes per year, many will lose lucrative tax deductions, and the Congressional Budget Office predicts the economy will fall back into recession.

There are specific repercussions for the LGBT community.

“I have great concerns about it,” says Lorri Jean, chief executive officer of the nation’s largest LGBT community and health center–the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. “In fact, these days, I’m worried about the one-two punch of capping charitable tax deductions and the fiscal cliff. And, every LGBT person who cares about our community ought to be worried about them, too.”

Jean notes that the largest infrastructure for the LGBT community nationwide is its federation of more than 200 LGBT community and health centers–places like the Los Angeles Center, the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago, Lyon-Martin Health Services in San Francisco, and the LGBT Community Center in New York City.

“When an LGBT kid is struggling with coming out, typically his or her first attempt to reach out for help is to an LGBT center,” says Jean. “The list is long of what people turn to centers for–or of what centers provide to LGBT people.” The LGBT centers of most major cities provide a wide range of services to LGBT seniors, to people seeking HIV testing, prevention, and treatment, to those in need of addiction recovery programs, coming out support groups, and more.

These groups, says Jean, are typically non-profit and, while they may take in significant dollars through fees for services and through private donations, many rely on federal funding for about a third of their budgets.

Going over the “fiscal cliff” without an agreement, says Jean, means two things: More people are going to need the services LGBT centers provide and LGBT centers are going to have significantly fewer dollars with which to provide those services.

“Demand for our services has already skyrocketed in this economy, and there will be fewer places to go if sequestration [the automatic cut in spending and tax breaks] goes into effect and results in the demise of nonprofits that simply cannot continue to survive without government dollars,” says Jean. “The private sector does not have the capacity to fill the huge hole that would be left if government funding essentially went away.  The social services safety net in this country is held together by nonprofit organizations that get significant funding from government.  A dramatic reduction in that will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable Americans, and LGBT people will be significantly among them.”

Dawn Harbatkin, executive director of the Lyon-Martin Health Services center in San Francisco, can put a number on it.

“Community health centers may face an automatic $167 million reduction in funding should Congress fail to negotiate a budget deal,” says Harbatkin. “It is unclear exactly what effect this will have on Lyon-Martin, as we currently do not get this funding, although we are considering applying as a new access point.”

But, she says “it will affect the ability of community health centers to respond to the increased need for services expected from the implementation of the ACA.”

The ACA is President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. All three of the nation’s major LGBT legal groups signed onto a brief at the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the ACA, noting that 30 percent of people with HIV are not able to obtain health insurance. Among other things, the ACA prohibits insurance companies from limiting or refusing coverage for a person with HIV, breast cancer, or any other disease. It also prohibits insurance companies from dropping a person’s coverage after the person became ill.Cece Cox, executive director of the Resource Center Dallas, an LGBT community organization, attended a December 5 meeting at the White House with 80 other Texas to discuss the impact of the fiscal cliff. In a letter to constituents about that meeting, Cox said the automatics spending cuts are “more than just pluses and minuses on a hypothetical budget sheet.”

“[R]eal people will feel the pain from these deep, drastic cuts,” said Cox.

And in an unusual move, a group of 29 wealthy LGBT Americans signed a December 5 letter to the leaders of both political parties in the House and Senate, saying that failure to find an agreement that prevents the government from going over the fiscal cliff would have a “huge impact” on the economy generally and the LGBT community specifically.

“For LGBT Americans, this ‘fiscal cliff’ isn’t just an abstract concept,” said the letter. “…Across-the-board cuts would compromise LGBT health by reducing programmatic funding used to address the health care needs of gay and transgender Americans, impair the federal government’s ability to investigate claims of workplace discrimination, and remove critical resources from government agencies working to prevent bullying and school violence.”

Signing onto the letter were LGBT philanthropists Tim Gill and David Bohnett, nationally known financial advisers Suze Orman and Andrew Tobias, former ETrade President Kathy Levinson, Equality Texas board member Paul Boskind and Texas-born filmmaker Dee Mosbacher, Chicago Cubs co-owner and Lambda Legal board member Laura Ricketts, Miami mortgage broker Joe Falk, and others. The letter indicated they all make more than $1 million per year, a group that President Obama hopes will shoulder a larger tax increase than most.

The letter cited a report last month from the Center for American Progress, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, the national CenterLink federation of LGBT community centers, and 21 other national LGBT groups signed onto. The report estimates that funding for the Ryan White HIV program would lose about $196 million of funding in the first year, leaving as many as 9,000 patients without access to vital medications.

“Allowing sequestration to take place would hinder the government’s ability to investigate and prevent workplace discrimination against gay and transgender employees. It would reduce programmatic funding to services aimed at addressing the specific health needs of gay and transgender people. It would reduce funding awarded to organizations working to reduce homelessness among gay and trans- gender youth. It would impede the government’s ability to prevent and address violent crime against gay and transgender people. And it would hinder diplomatic efforts to promote the human rights and basic safety of gay and transgender people around the globe,” said the report.

“In short, allowing sequestration to go into effect would be disastrous for gay and transgender Americans.”

At deadline, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, Republican leader of the Republican-controlled House, were said to be in daily discussions to seek an agreement. But as of Tuesday afternoon, Boehner was still complaining that the White House had not agreed to identify any spending cuts, and President Obama told an audience in Michigan Monday that Congress needs to raise taxes on Americans making $1 million or more per year in income.

According to The Hill newspaper, a Capitol Hill news organization, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says President Obama’s proposal would reduce the debt from 75 percent of the Gross Domestic Product to 73 percent within 10 years, while Boehner’s would reduce it to 72 percent. The special presidential commission charged with proposing a strategy for reducing the debt to 65.5 percent of the GDP by 2022.

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