Black Voice News, News Report, Chris Levister
SAN BERNARDINO, CA - Claiming betrayal, mistrust, disastrous public health leadership and a stunning lack of county government oversight more than a dozen HIV/AIDS activists, supporters and people living with AIDS pressed the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to declare a state of emergency in the African American community Tuesday.
“More African Americans in San Bernardino County are living with HIV or already dead from AIDS than any other single racial or ethnic group,” said Nosente Uhuti, vice chairperson of Nubian AIDS Coalition and southern vice chair for the California African American HIV/AIDS Coalition.
“African Americans make up 10 percent of the County population yet they comprise 28 percent of diagnosed HIV cases and 24 percent of diagnosed AIDS cases,” said African American Health Institute prevention specialist Denise R. Hinds, Dr. P.H. “And HIV/AIDS is now the leading cause of death among African Americans ages 25 to 44—ahead of heart disease, accidents, cancer, and homicide.
"It's a state of emergency," says Patricia Green-Lee, president of Brothers and Sisters in Action (BASIA). African Americans and Latinos are more heavily impacted in San Bernardino County comprising of 60.4% of total HIV/AIDS prevalence as compared to 26.1% of HIV/AIDS in Riverside County where the epicenter in Palm Springs is predominantly White (58.7%), male (86.9%), aged 25-44. AIDS kills twice as many African American men ages 25-44 as homicide
More African American children are infected with HIV than children of other races and ethnicities combined.”
“How long are we going to sit around and watch people like me die? How long?” Christopher Abram told Supervisors, “I have AIDS. I’m unemployed and I’m sick.” The well educated former medical worker filled with emotion during what at times seemed like a war of words between Supervisors and HIV/AIDS activists.
“I scheduled appointments at the Public Health office in Ontario, but because I could not afford my $65 share of cost, the county turned me away saying that, “we will not see you until you pay,” said Abram. I have not seen a doctor in over a year.
The ultimate humiliation he said was, “They gave me the yellow pages and told me to call other doctors for help.”
Abram’s partner Kevin Johnson sat quietly nearby – confined to a wheelchair. Johnson a former Well Fargo worker is blind, (doctors say because of untreated HIV related shingles). He weighs 75 pounds. “Lucky for Kevin, he is Medicare approved,” Abram testified. “But when the county doctor reviewed Kevin’s medication list, he came into the exam room, and without even taking a look, told us he could not treat Kevin because he wasn’t equipped or qualified to help someone with AIDS. How long? Again I say How Long?”
The testimony came during the public comment period at the end of a lengthy agenda containing nearly 100 items. Board Chairman Gary Ovitt was absent. First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt and Third District Supervisor Neil Derry had prior commitments following the regular meeting. Acting Chair Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales and Second District Supervisor Paul Baine listened intently but took no action on public concerns.
“A time comes when silence is betrayal,” said Faith Davis-Bolton, co-founder of First Chance/Y Chow, Inc., a HIV outreach organization and vice chair of Nubian AIDS Coalition. She called on the Board to direct the Inland Empire HIV Planning Council to include a ‘state of emergency’ designation in the African American community during the July 21-23 Priority Setting and Allocations Summit in Riverside.
“Epidemic proportions drive this need to increase competent outpatient ambulatory medical care into upcoming deliberations and the data that is used to develop 2011-2012 Ryan White funding allocations and service categories particularly in communities of color.”
Davis-Bolton and other group members demanded to know the whereabouts of $242.000 in Ryan White funds designated for HIV/AIDS treatment. They claim these and other funds were returned unspent or redirected to dental and other none medical programs. Both Gonzales and Biane appeared puzzled. “Neither I nor my staff has any record of the County returning or redirecting Ryan White funds,” said Gonzales. A claim she promised to look into.
Gonzales’ Deputy Chief of Staff, Lisha B. Smith said the funds were not returned. “In fact the funds are being sent back to the Planning Council for reallocation.”
“Access to treatment is placed at risk by a public health department run by a revolving door of directors who have no public health training” lamented Uhuti referring to the March firing of former Director Jim Lindley, the latest in a string of abrupt department resignations and firings. Lindley former Hesperia Mayor and county purchasing director was appointed in 2008 to head the department amid allegations he lacked necessary qualifications.
Department of Behavioral Health Director Allan Rawland, MSW was named interim director in March.
Uhuti accused Supervisors and the Health Department of ‘quietly’ planning to close clinics and subcontract the county’s HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention services to community based organizations. The accusation drew a pointed response from Gonzales.
“There is absolutely no plan to close clinics or reduce services. It is unfortunate that a miscommunication or lack of information is cause for concern. We all need to be more responsible in ascertaining the facts rather than spreading alarm that services have been terminated,” said Gonzales in a written statement. “I support acting director Rawland’s responsiveness in deciding to keep our three clinics open to provide service to its clients.”
Public Health Officer Maxwell Ohikhuare, M.D. said a proposal to transition the HIV clinical services for San Bernardino only was presented to the HIV Planning Council.
“The idea was to get community organizations to apply for the Ryan White funding and become providers for the county. Reason being – we need more culturally competent community-based providers. The need is so great but ethnic health professionals aren’t stepping up to the plate,” he said.
“Because of the negative response from clinical staff, providers and clients, we removed the proposal from discussion.” He says the department has since conducted focus groups and formed a task force that includes health providers, clients and members of the community.
“We’re committed to maintaining what we have with the goal of building capacity within the community.”
Gonzales instructed Rawland and Dr. Ohikhuare to meet with the speakers and members of the African American community to address lingering concerns. As for declaring a state of emergency, can political wordsmithing help win the fight against HIV/AIDS?
These advocates and people living with the disease hope so.
“We feel betrayed and disappointed,” said Uhuti following the meeting. Still several speakers took time to thank Gonzales and Ohikhuare. “I think they get it,” said Pat Green- Lee.
The feeling of betrayal, said Uhuti “is knowing that we are coming back to the same place where we started over 20 years ago. There will be no automatic trust from us. It appears that our policy-makers and Board of Supervisors do not believe the state we are in or, simply do not care. The good news is they’ve been put on notice - we’re not going away.”