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AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, Fenway Health forge new partnership

Two of Boston’s landmark AIDS organizations are joining forces, announcing a “strategic partnership” Thursday between Fenway Health and the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts that leaders say will improve care as people are living longer with the virus, while bolstering the stability of services amid shrinking federal and state support.

“Our infrastructure is at a breaking point,” said Rebecca Haag, AIDS Action’s president and chief executive.

In the past 10 years, state funding for AIDS services has dropped by 38 percent, Haag said, “but the number of people living in Massachusetts with HIV has increased by 44 percent.”

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Under the partnership, approved by boards of both organizations, Fenway Health and AIDS Action will unite to become one corporate structure, but each will retain its nonprofit status, name, mission, and separate offices. Fenway’s board will assume financial responsibility for the new entity, while board members from AIDS Action will assume an advisory role.

Haag will remain chief executive of AIDS Action, while Dr. Stephen Boswell, Fenway’s president and chief executive, will be in charge of the newly merged organization.

Boswell said patients will probably not see any immediate changes, but will ultimately benefit because the new organization will be able to streamline services by combining forces. The organizations, for instance, will save money by sharing information technology services, administrative functions, and even cleaning services.

AIDS Action — known for helping HIV patients find housing, transportation, and other community services — will tap its expertise to connect patients living on the fringes with medical care at Fenway, a prominent community health center that serves a wide array of Boston residents, leaders from both organizations said.

Together, the two organizations touch thousands of lives. Fenway Health, with an annual operating budget of $64 million, treats about 22,000 patients, while AIDS Action, with a $13 million budget, serves about 6,800 clients.

Once considered a death sentence, AIDS has become a chronic disease through use of powerful drugs. Aggressive public health initiatives have reduced new cases, especially in Massachusetts.

But people are living longer with the virus, creating a growing need for services.

“The way we can keep the number of new infections dropping is to get people into care to lower [the amount of virus in their body], which significantly decreases their risk of transmitting their virus,” Boswell said.

“Our hope is, by working with AIDS Action, we reach the most difficult people to reach and get them into care,” he said.

Sweeping changes in health care will be coming in the next year as the federal health care overhaul encourages organizations to coordinate services and reduce costs. Boswell said the partnership between Fenway Health and AIDS Action can serve as an example.

“Our boards believe this is a leading effort to show how other major, urban areas in the country can deal with these issues that are also affecting them,” Boswell said.

The arrangement is, in a sense, a homecoming for AIDS Action, born 30 years ago in the basement of Fenway Health’s former Haviland Street building in the crucible of the AIDS epidemic.

Larry Kessler, then a Fenway Health board member and one of the few with experience setting up nonprofit organizations, was asked to establish a group that could help people infected with what was then a mysterious and frightening new disease.

“I thought it would be a one-year deal, then thought in three years we won’t need it anymore, but the need for AIDS Action is still there,” said Kessler, who led AIDS Action for 25 years and is now director of the Boston Living Center another nonprofit serving people with HIV and AIDS.

Kessler said the new partnership makes sense.

“The whole system of health care is evolving and about to make some dramatic change,” he said. “By joining forces, they will be able to get the most efficiency out of every dollar, as well as improve communication with each other and the people they serve.”

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