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May 20, 2011

Two of Ohio’s top AIDS agencies to merge

Columbus AIDS Task Force joins with ARC Ohio to cover most of the state

Columbus--The Columbus AIDS Task Force will merge into the AIDS Resource Center Ohio on July 1, creating an agency covering 70 percent of the state.

The merger, which has been discussed seriously for the last two years, was announced on May 16. It makes the second time ARC Ohio has combined with another AIDS service organization in the state. David’s House Compassion, a Toledo agency, became part of ARC Ohio in 2006, which kept David’s House from shutting its doors.

The CATF merger has been the subject of a year-long assessment with funds provided by the Columbus Foundation, the Dayton Foundation and the Toledo Community Foundation.

After the merger, the agency will serve 60 counties. It will keep the AIDS Resource Center Ohio name, and ARC Ohio executive director Bill Hardy will remain at the helm. CATF chief executive officer Peggy Anderson will direct program operations for the organization.

Offices will be in Columbus, Dayton, Lima, Mansfield, Toledo, Athens, Chillicothe and Newark.

“It’s been a good process for us,” Hardy said in a May 17 interview. “I’m really glad we’re able to reach this milestone.”

In a still-tenuous economic climate, AIDS service organizations have been having to work twice as hard just to keep their footing.

“These have been really challenging times for AIDS organizations,” Hardy said. “It’s an extraordinarily challenging time for all non-profits, and perhaps especially so for AIDS service organizations.”

But the merger was not just about dollars and cents.

“We never approached the conversation from a standpoint of cost savings, but there certainly will be efficiencies,” Hardy continued. “We, for example, believe that in terms of fundraising and public policy and advocacy and administration of prevention and testing and support services, we will have a stronger team, we will be able to share best practices, and there will absolutely be efficiencies in duplication of activities” like grant applications.

Hardy has been pushing the idea of interagency efforts for over a decade, and while David’s House merged into ARC Ohio five years ago, the talks with CATF really picked up a couple of years ago.

“I’ve been advocating for AIDS service organizations in Ohio to look at strategic alliances for over a decade. We started this conversation, put it on the table, in 2000,” he noted. “We came back to this conversation with CATF less than two years ago, and really started hitting it about a year ago.”

“During that period, we have watched AIDS organizations across the nation and here in Ohio close their doors or reduce services. It was our intent in this process to stay ahead of the wave and do this proactively,” he continued.

Stop AIDS Cincinnati, for instance, lost nearly a million dollars in funding from the Ohio Department of Health earlier this year, including $750,000 for their Ryan White case management and an $150,000 pass-through for HIV testing and prevention programs. Caracole, also in Cincinnati, was given the case management funding in March and hired most of the social work staff from Stop AIDS, which started in 1983 as AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati. The city of Cincinnati’s health department has not yet decided what to do with the money for testing.

While clients of Stop AIDS, now part of Caracole, had weeks of uncertainty between the loss of funding and Caracole securing the cases, that will not happen when CATF merges with ARC Ohio.

“It’s our intent that this will be a seamless transition. And if there’s any noticeable difference in programs and services, it’s that the programs and services are more effective and efficient,” Hardy stressed. “It’s our goal to bring equitable care no matter where you live.”

ARC Ohio models much of its structure on AIDS Resource Center Wisconsin, a statewide organization with offices in several cities.

“We even brought Doug Wilson, their executive director, to Ohio to talk to our boards in February” said Hardy. “They certainly have program staff in all of their offices, but senior staff is wherever they happen to be as well. In 2011, there are all sorts of mechanisms to make that possible.”

“We will have eight offices,” Hardy noted. “You can have a director of something or other in office one, a director of something else in office two, etc. We’re doing that now. We have staff meetings through telecommunications, we do administrations across 40 counties.”

“Global companies do that all the time. And because our services have been contiguous, we have no intention to eliminate offices or downsize staff. It’s not focusing on those kinds of reductions at all,” he said.

One of the areas that the merger will most strongly improve is the agency’s ability to do policy and advocacy work in the state capital, although not simply because there will now be an office there.

“We’re contracting right now with a highly-skilled professional to work with us on public policy, who happens to be Earl Pike, and he lives in Cleveland,” Hardy said. “We descend on Columbus and our legislators when we need to be there. The good thing about Columbus is, it’s only about two hours away from the farthest point in the state.”

“I’ll be in Columbus all day tomorrow, I believe I have appointments with five legislators, and I’ll be in Columbus all day Thursday. We are where we need to be,” he said.

Pike is a familiar name in AIDS service organizations, having headed the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland for 13 years until his resignation last August. He was the second most long-lasting executive director of an AIDS agency in the state, after Hardy’s 18 years.

After almost two decades heading the organization, Hardy does the opposite of what was done a decade or more ago, when AIDS activists separated “gay” and “AIDS.”

“I believe AIDS service organizations have a profoundly important role not only in the HIV community, but also they have a secondary function which is historically to help coalesce the LGBT community,” Hardy opined. “We have absolutely been committed about the fact that well-being around HIV is also about well-being of the LGBT community at large. The healthier the LGBT community, the better we can fight HIV.”

“AIDS service organizations provide an historic and unique service to the public and the HIV community, and I’m passionate about their survival for as long as we’re needed,” he concluded. “I love what I’m doing. It’s extraordinarily challenging, and it’s deeply gratifying.”

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