Loudmouths

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

Cathy Lynch, executive director of Health Crisis Network, immediately wrote a four-page memo to her staff refuting each allegation. In a recent interview at the offices of Health Crisis Network, located at 5050 Biscayne Blvd., she claims to have spent hours investigating complaints PWAC had filed on behalf of various clients of her agency. According to Lynch, none was based in fact.

"It's been frustrating because there is so much to do," Lynch sighs. A respected administrator who has spent the last twelve years working with local AIDS organizations, Lynch says the attacks surprised her all the more because Health Crisis Network has historically had good relations with PWAC. The two groups occasionally held joint staff meetings, and Health Crisis Network had supplied PWAC with a mobile HIV testing unit one afternoon per week. "You need someone who honorably, ethically, constructively, and truthfully points out problems," she asserts. "But this a witch-hunt."

"We need a PWAC," concurs Damian Pardo, president of Health Crisis Network. But as a self-styled ombudsman, PWAC should investigate the veracity of its allegations before publicizing them, he says. "It's not just HCN; it affects the whole community, because you create uncertainty. Donors think, 'Maybe I won't give to AIDS this year because I don't know who to believe.' Everyone loses a little bit of their credibility."

In a lengthy letter to Hutchison, Pardo requested a retraction on behalf of his agency. "In a time when increasingly conservative forces threaten much of the progress we, as a community, have made, you have chosen to slander members of the community you claim to represent," Pardo's letter stated. "YOU are not the exclusive voice of the HIV-affected community."

Hutchison responded with his own missive. "We have always, in many ways, clearly stated that we represent the PWA in crisis and are a voice for those afraid or unable to speak up against injustice...not the voice of the AIDS community," Hutchison stressed before returning to his mantra of wasted and misspent funds. "If community unity means ignoring misuse of government funds, loss of services to PWAs in need, in favor of payrolls, politics, and policies, helping to hide the fact A FACT A that many agencies have misused and continue to misuse these scarce government funds, slyly helping each other ignore injustices within the system because nobody's looking anyway, then you have a sadly skewed vision of unity." Hutchison refused to publish a retraction.

In addition to Health Crisis Network's costly case management program, the December newsletter cited another example of alleged misuse of federal funds: the food bank run by Cure AIDS Now, an AIDS organization providing counseling services and education, as well as deliveries to homebound AIDS patients. The article compared the cost of a basket of food picked up at the food bank with equivalent purchases at Publix and Hyde Park supermarkets. The markets yielded bills of $18.67 and $23.22, while Cure AIDS Now billed the federal government $36. The way Hutchison figures it, only 27 cents of every federal dollar given to the food bank goes to feed people with AIDS. "I'm sorry, but my conscience won't let me agree with that," Hutchison says with ecclesiastical conviction. "I must speak out, and I do."

Dominick Magarelli, executive director of Cure AIDS Now, rejects Hutchison's criticism. "The money does not go into our pockets, it goes to feed people," he says. "I have full-blown AIDS, and I have a deep sympathy for my clients. I would never let that happen." Magarelli also claims to have done his own price comparison and ended up with bills similar to those submitted by Cure AIDS Now.

"I'm not here to run a popularity contest," Hutchison responds with more than a trace of sarcasm. Still he asserts, "The masses are behind us." He points out that earlier this year the coalition purchased its three-building complex at 3890 Biscayne Blvd. by raising about $75,000 through private contributions and selling donated items at the organization's thrift shop. According to financial statements, PWAC's expenses of approximately $20,000 per month are predominantly covered by profits from the thrift shop, which is staffed almost exclusively by volunteers. Wages for a handyman and a delivery man come to about $4000 per month. Neither Hutchison, Suarez, nor any other member of the board draws a salary.

While the property purchase and the thriving business at the thrift shop stand as physical testaments to PWAC's support in the community, it is the hard-won shifts in government policy that Hutchison views as his greatest accomplishments. Following PWAC's articles and editorials about Health Crisis Network and Cure AIDS Now, the Metro-Dade HIV Health Services Planning Council in January imposed a cap of $50 per hour on case management charges. And last month, in a periodic allocation of unspent money, the council more than doubled funds available for food vouchers. It also required that two-thirds of the $150,000 in new monies allotted to the Cure AIDS Now food bank be dedicated to vouchers. Hutchison sees both decisions as PWAC victories. "The system is being changed," he argues.

But Joey Wynn, a member of the county's consensus committee who served briefly as president of PWAC's board of directors, says the group's accomplishments have incurred high emotional costs. He himself became a casualty in PWAC's crusade against AIDS service organizations when he nominated a slate of community members to run in elections for the PWAC board this past December. Incensed that Wynn's slate included employees of federally funded agencies (Wynn himself works at Mercy Hospital) and fearful that Wynn was trying to take over PWAC, Hutchison publicly denounced his former ally as "a blood-sucking, money-hungry provider." Recalls Wynn: "I just sat there dumbfounded. And I believe I said I thought he should receive mental counseling. How dare they treat PWAs as horribly as they accuse other people of doing?"

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