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With Cuts On The Horizon, Some Louisville Health Agencies Fear The Worst

needle exchange 1
Lisa Gillespie
The Lake Dreamland needle exchange.

At South Louisville Community Ministries, director Clare Rutz Wallace is used to emergencies. Her staff helps people in the midst of crisis situations, whether they’re one rent payment away from homelessness or dealing with the death of a family member. In the case of one single mom of three, it was a car breaking down.

“Her car broke down and could not get to UPS to work, and after a week, they had to let her go,” Rutz Wallace said. “It just spirals very quickly, so she was two days away from being on the streets.”

Rutz Wallace’s organization is set up for times like these. South Louisville Community Ministries provides emergency assistance — which includes money to help avoid eviction, and paying expenses like utilities and medical bills.

But some of the nonprofit’s funding is at risk. Last month, Mayor Greg Fischer announcedthe city faces a $65 million budget shortfall over the next four years, due in part to rising employee health costs and state pension obligations.

Metro Council considered several options to fill that hole, including Fischer's proposal to raise the tax on some types of insurance. But last week, Council members ultimately voted against raising taxes.

That means Fischer’s budget proposal, which is due by April 25, will include cuts to city agencies and services. The mayor’s list of potential reductions released last month includes cuts to a number of health programs — including for some public health initiatives like the city's STD clinic and immunization program. And that list of potential cuts also included a 50 percent decrease in the funding that supports the 15 community ministries around Louisville.


A quarter of Rutz Wallace’s budget comes from the city. She said right now, South Louisville Community Ministries helps about 3,000 families in emergency situations every month. If she loses some of her city funding, that would be drastically reduced.

“It would be emergency assistance that funding that we give to families,” Rutz Wallace said. “That wouldn't be available for more than 1000 families, simply.”

Also included in Fischer’s list of possible cuts is one ambulance from Metro Emergency Medical Services. EMS spokesman Mitchell Burmeister wrote in an email that EMS employees would have fewer resources but would have to provide the same level of care.

“Operating one less ambulance every day will adversely affect patient outcomes, due to system constraints and longer wait times,” Burmeister wrote.

Several community centers are also on the list of preliminary cuts, which worries Faith Aeilts, the executive administrator of Louisville’s Office of Resilience and Community Services. She runs a program that serves daily nutritious meals to seniors. It’s a federally-funded program, but it relies on community locations to host the meals — and Fischer’s potential reductions include the elimination of four community centers.

“Which then leaves us with a challenge: if they're not going to be there,  then how will we provide the services to the seniors who were coming there to eat?” Aeilts asked.

The seniors Aeilts’ program feeds mostly have low-incomes and few resources. Aeilts has begun to think about alternative locations. But finding another option won’t be easy; because hers is a federally-funded program, getting new locations approved is a lengthy process.

“You don't make just one change, because there's always ripple effects. And this one could be waves,” Aeilts said, adding that the prospects are anxiety-inducing. “And we don't know anything yet. So it's very hard to plan.”

That planning is an issue for Jennifer Hancock, too. She’s the president of Volunteers of America Mid-States, which runs four of the city’s syringe exchange locations where people can exchange used drug needles and syringes for clean ones.

VOA has an RV that rotates among four locations around Louisville. Fischer’s potential reductions include limiting the syringe exchange hours, which Hancock said will mean eliminating the RV (pictured above).

“So this would be harmful to our community in a number of ways, not the least of which is our ability to continue to reduce the spread of infectious disease by making sure that the clean syringes are available and making sure that HIV and hepatitis C testing is available in the field as well,” Hancock said.

Hancock said under this scenario, only one syringe exchange site would remain at the downtown Louisville Metro Public Health Department. And she worries that people won’t go to that location — it’s a 30 minute drive from some of the neighborhoods the RV serves. She also worries the Mayor’s budget will go even deeper.

“My concern is that it won’t just be limited to syringe exchange, there will be other services that could be at risk as well,” Hancock said.

Fischer has until April 25 to submit his proposed budget. Then it’ll be up to Metro Council to approve a final budget by July 1.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.