The dissolution of AIDS Project Utah, a non-profit organization that educates and provides emotional support to people with AIDS, won't affect services to patients or the public in general, local health officials said Tuesday.

In fact, one official maintains the organization's closing could enhance services in the long run because non-profit agencies won't be competing for scarce funding."If one project can consolidate the services and bring the volunteers together, it will be more successful," said Craig Nichols, state epidemiologist.

It was announced this week that AIDS Project Utah, founded in 1985, will dissolve effective Dec. 31 due to financial problems.

In October, the project canceled its annual benefit because of poor ticket sales. In November, the organization received notice that a potential major funding source had denied its proposal. The group's board voted to close the project by the end of the year.

Nevertheless, services are expected to continue.

The Salt Lake AIDS Foundation, another non-profit group founded in 1985 and headed by former AIDS Project Utah Director Ben Barr, will be the main volunteer agency in Utah addressing AIDS issues.

On Tuesday Barr announced an emergency holiday expansion of the foundation's goals and services.

Previously, the foundation's focus has been on education and prevention. "But with the closing of AIDS Project Utah, we will be taking over direct-services programs, such as the `Buddy Program,' and emotional support groups," Barr said.

Volunteers for the two organizations, in fact, met Monday night and committed to continue those programs under the foundation "so those clients won't go one day without services." The foundation's hotline hours will also be expanded.

The security of the foundation also is threatened by limited funds. Barr said it is in desperate need of financial support.

But Barr isn't looking to the government for help. State and federal money is allocated to other, specific AIDS programs.

Nichols said $180,000 in state money is designated for epidemiology, which provides for reporting of AIDS cases, contact tracing/partner notification and general public education.

The Medicaid program has a combination of state and federal money used for AIDS patient care. To be eligible, patients must meet certain disease guidelines and income standards. As part of that treatment, patients can receive AZT, the drug most effective in increasing the person's well-being and lengthening his or her life span.

`The greatest benefit is that the person has lower overall medical costs," Nichols said. "Even though the drug is expensive, patients who use it are hospitalized less. They also remain more productive."

Last year, Congress approved funding so that AIDS patients who are not eligible for Medicaid can receive AZT. "The idea was that many patients need the drug, and with it can continue working and thus won't become disabled and Medicaid-eligible," Nichols said. That funding will continue for six months.

The Utah Department of Health is also negotiating with the Centers for Disease Control for additional money to be used for laboratory testing and support of county health departments' counseling and testing sites.

Telephone information and hotline services, like the one operated by Salt Lake AIDS Foundation, could also receive Centers for Disease Control money obtained by the health department.

But that's where the buck stops.

Nichols said next year Congress will appropriate money directly to community-based AIDS organizations. "But the early reports I have received say that Utah may not receive any funds because of our small population and few AIDS cases," he said. "Yet they (non-profit organizations) play an important role because they provide services that we can't now and never will."

Some 155 cases of AIDS have been reported in Utah. The number is expected to increase while scientists search for a cure for the deadly virus.

Meanwhile, Barr hopes the public will rally around AIDS patients.

"As there is no state or federal funding available for the continuance of these essential programs, the Salt Lake AIDS Foundation is issuing an emergency request for special Christmas support from the public so there will be no interruption over the holidays for those in need of these vital services," Barr said.

Contributions or questions may be directed to the Salt Lake AIDS Foundation, P.O. Box 3373, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.