Lawmakers are taking urgent action to address a budget shortfall that, if not addressed, could result in rape victims not receiving medicine to prevent HIV or having nurses trained in evidence collection preparing rape kits.
The crime victims reparation account which pays for the services is running dangerously low and attempts to cut costs have put some of the non-profits that provide the services to victims — already operating on a shoestring budget — on the brink of having to close their doors.
In addition to forensic exams, the account covers mental health counseling, medical expenses and even burial costs for victims of violent crimes.
Legislators added another $877,000 in emergency supplemental funds to a budget bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday and is now awaiting a vote in the House.
If the fund were allowed to lapse, victims could have pay the $1,200 for HIV prevention medications or simply hope they don’t get the disease. The trained nurses who now conduct sexual assault exams would not be available and victims could instead have to wait for a doctor who may not be trained in evidence gathering.
Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, raised the issue of the funding shortfall in a budget committee Monday.
"The nurse practitioners that provide this service are experts in that field and are the link between the crime victim and the criminal justice system," she said in an interview. "They can help get perpetrators caught and help victims receive some sort of justice."
The problem stems from action the Legislature took in 2003, when lawmakers facing a budget crunch told the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) to run the department out of a $16 million surplus in the crime-victims fund. That has persisted for years and the surplus that was there a decade ago has dwindled to nothing.
This year, just to make it to the end of the fiscal year last June, the board that administers the victims fund cut payouts by 20 percent across the board — from the nurses who collect rape kits to medical and mental-health providers and payments directly to victims.
But Ron Gordon, director of CCJJ, said that was a big hit to some providers, some of whom said they wouldn’t be able to survive the reduction, especially those nurse examiners specially trained to conduct sexual-assault exams.
"Some of the nurse examiners have said we just can’t operate like this," he said.
Gordon said he hopes that, assuming the bill passes and is signed by the governor, the funds "will help us get through the fiscal year" and reverse the 20 percent reduction on payments.
But unless a change is made to the way CCJJ is funded, as the governor has requested, the fund will likely again run out of money next year.
That issue will be hammered out later in the session as lawmakers begin work on next year’s budget.
"Just because someone may get assaulted at a particular time of year when our budget cycles aren’t in line with the need, they shouldn’t have to pay the price for that," Seelig said.
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