Federal health officials came to Brooklyn Thursday to urge more than a thousand local health care providers to apply for federal grants to bolster their work–even though most of the programs that fund work like HIV and AIDS treatment aren’t slated to grow, or will even be cut, in the coming year.

“It’s important to me–and to the President and the Secretary–that each of you is able to access our funding,” Health and Human Services regional director Deborah Konopko told the nonprofit and government professionals who attended the conference, titled “Accessing Resources for Your Community,” at the Brooklyn Marriott.

But just an hour later, in a smaller session on funding for groups who work with the homeless, a junior HHS official was much more honest about funding prospects. Congress and the White House have yet to agree on a 2003 budget, even though the fiscal year started one month ago, noted Larry Rickards of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “We still don’t have any idea how much money we have to work with,” Rickards said. “It’s hamstrung us. And it’s interfering with all these efforts.”

In February, President Bush proposed an HHS budget of $471 billion, a slight increase from the previous year’s $463 billion. Most of that increase is for fighting biological or chemical terrorist attacks. In most other areas, the budget proposals are the same as last year’s.

For example, the Bush budget calls for $1.9 billion in Ryan White CARE Act funding, which helps pay for care and treatment for uninsured people living with HIV and AIDS–the same as fiscal year 2002. Advocacy groups argue that with both health care costs and the number of AIDS cases rising–there was an 8 percent jump in new cases nationally last year–maintaining funding actually amounts to a cut. The National Minority AIDS Council estimates that if Bush’s proposal passes, 16,000 people who currently receive care will lose it.

Secretary Tommy Thompson was supposed to attend Thursday’s gathering, but he cancelled at the last minute. That didn’t dissuade several dozen protestors, who interrupted Thompson’s replacement as soon as he began speaking. “Where’s Tommy Thompson?” shouted activists with Housing Works and ACT UP, blowing whistles and reciting a series of complaints about Bush administration policies, like its ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs and the shift to emphasizing abstinence in federal HIV and AIDS education programs for young people.

The activists were disappointed they couldn’t deliver their message directly to Thompson, but they were pleasantly surprised by the response from the conference participants, some of whom applauded. “We were very pleased the crowd was with us,” said Nuris Rodriguez of Housing Works. “We thought they’d be ready to kill us.”

Actually, some were ready to blow their own whistles. “I wanted to join them!” said Anindita Chatterjee Bhaumik of Sanctuary for Families, a group that advocates for victims of domestic violence. “I think the whole day was about a political agenda. They will just do what they want anyway. What was the point?”