Loudmouths

In the battle against AIDS, some people say shouting is more effective than talking. And if you don't agree, watch out!

Charles Hutchison, the 59-year-old executive director of PWAC, boasts about how he once intimidated a member of the Miami Beach Zoning Board of Adjustment into changing her vote on a project slated to provide affordable housing to AIDS victims. Tall, with a russet beard and dark eyes magnified by black-rimmed spectacles, Hutchison cuts an imposing figure. A descendant of Cherokee Indians, he doesn't shrink from confrontation. "I stood up and I threatened her," Hutchison remembers, still savoring his achievement sixteen months later. "I said if she dared not vote for the variance, we'd have the wrath of the PWA community down upon her. If it hadn't been for me standing up and sticking my neck out, the [project] would have been held up even longer."

Not only has PWAC grown in membership since its founding in 1989, Hutchison maintains that he and several hundred allies are slowly forcing the social service colossus into action. "We're getting results," he emphasizes.

Rather than thank PWAC, however, some members of the AIDS community are beginning to question the organization's tactics, its tendency to turn procedural disagreements into personal attacks, and the acrimonious tone of its newsletter. They condemn accusations that have been made against individuals who were too sick to fight back, or in one case, a man who sought to clear his name before dying. In the past several months, critics say, more energy has been devoted to internecine squabbling than to lobbying Congress to prevent AIDS funding cuts or combating prejudice against AIDS victims living in an unfriendly society.

In October two members of the council filed separate libel suits against Hutchison. At least seven PWAC board members have quit in the past year. A handful of former PWAC volunteers complain they have been barred from returning following disputes with Hutchison.

Two recent exposes published in PWAC's newsletter leveling accusations against Health Crisis Network and another group, Cure AIDS Now, have been particularly divisive. (Although the newsletter's circulation is only about 3000, it is read by many times that number.) In the December issue, an editorial signed by Hutchison denounced the organizations, along with other providers, for immorally profiting from AIDS:

"We suggest that the providers listen and listen well. They have not been listening at all, but that will no longer be tolerated by the CONSUMERS. That's us, PWAs. Before PWAC, the providers had an open playing field, and they had those of us dying from this horrible illness believing that they were our bosses, our benefactors, and that we had no other choice but to play by their rules. That was a pretty good intimidation tactic, and they even had PWAs believing it.

"The good old days are over. Now you will learn to play by our rules.... We are telling you, among other things, that we will no longer tolerate the following: #1) The outrageous profits from OUR funds going to runaway costs of the operations of YOUR businesses! #2) We will no longer be treated as second-class citizens, and your high-handed, disrespectful, rude, uncaring, discriminatory practices will stop! #3) We will no longer be limited to your 'internal grievance processes,' and complaints against you will be handled by our standards and not yours."

Hutchison then cited a cost analysis of local AIDS groups commissioned by the county and produced by Behavioral Science Research, a Miami-based management consulting firm whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, local municipalities, and government agencies. The analysis reported that Health Crisis Network bills the federal government $70 per hour for case management, the catchall term for helping people living with AIDS negotiate the social service system. Based on that rate, which until recently was the second-highest in Dade County, Hutchison then proposed a hypothetical budget: "Theoretically, an HCN employee/case manager works 40 hours/week. [If] HCN is paid $70 per hour, this means an income to HCN of $2800/ week. If HCN pays the case manager $500/ week, that translates into a gross profit of $2300/ week. If they have ten cases managers, that translates into $23,000/ week [or] $1,196,000 PER YEAR profit!"

In a claim both he and Suarez have repeated several times since, Hutchison also stated that dissatisfied clients have filed more complaints with PWAC against Health Crisis Network than any other organization. According to the editorial and follow-up articles, AIDS sufferers who are referred to Health Crisis Network by other agencies for services such as food vouchers are often turned away. Sometimes they are offered vouchers of a lesser value A $10 compared to $35 for its own clients. The reason, Hutchison concluded, is that Health Crisis Network wants to bill the government for case management, and can't do so unless the AIDS patients they help are registered as clients.

While Health Crisis Network has explained the discrepancy in treatment as a byproduct of limited resources, Hutchison countered that the agency has more than sufficient funds to serve all people afflicted with AIDS. "They want more money from the government. [They want a greater share] of scarce and limited care and treatment dollars! While making the PWA go without and wait for service A they sit on their large RESERVE FUND."

Published the week before the "White Party," the popular fundraising gala Health Crisis Network sponsors each year, the editorial struck the HIV-positive community like an eight ball breaking through pent-up indignation from those on both sides of the controversy.

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