Loudmouths

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

Sitting in Hutchison's office at the PWAC complex, J.D. Ramsay, Gene Suarez, and Hutchison elaborate on their latest objective: to force providers to furnish receipts for every service they offer, whether it's handing over a food voucher or making a telephone call on behalf of a client. "This is my pet issue," says Hutchison, the stubborn set of his jaw conveying both the primness of a headmistress and the aggressiveness of a pit bull. "If Medicare and Medicaid providers are cheating the system out of hundreds of millions of dollars and they are keeping records and receipts, what in the world are these big agencies doing with [AIDS] millions where there are no receipts?

"We have evidence that the money is being abused," Hutchison continues. "I know for a fact that they're cheating, and I don't like it." By forcing the agencies to write out receipts to clients, Hutchison figures he'll either get the proof he needs to put fraudulent providers out of business, or the increased scrutiny will force them to come clean. "You know they are definitely out to do anything they can to shut up the Coalition," Hutchison adds, almost as an aside. "But we're a long way from being shut up, and we're getting things passed that are making them more and more furious every day."

Indeed, the anger is apparent at a meeting of the county's consensus committee this past week. Half a dozen members of the board of directors of Health Crisis Network have come to discuss the problems that have been publicized in the PWAC newsletter that prompted so much rancor at the committee's March 14 meeting. This time the room at Mercy Hospital is jammed with people as more than 70 supporters of Health Crisis Network and PWAC square off for a showdown.

One by one, disgruntled AIDS sufferers stand up to express their frustration. If they support Health Crisis Network by participating in its fundraising events, why have they been turned away when they were in need? "Those of us living with the virus, we all are equal," exclaims a tall black man who says he has been trying to become an HCN client for three years.

Sympathy is not running deep, however. Shortly after the man sits down, murmurs rise from the back of the room, calling for Health Crisis Network to respond. "The hostility in this meeting between AIDS organizations and PWAC is so thick you can cut it with a knife," announces a man named John. "This doesn't represent me," he says as he displays a copy of the PWAC newsletter. "We have enough problems in Washington without going after each other."

Hearty applause greets his remarks. "Whose fault is that?" someone shouts.
Lily, a client of Health Crisis Network, defends the agency. "If they just give out [vouchers] to everyone, then the clients wouldn't be able to get anything!"

Paul Crockett, a Health Crisis Network board member, asks for a show of hands from everyone who believes the agency's food-voucher policy is a vital issue affecting their lives. The room separates along fault lines of happy clients who are afraid of losing the services they receive and those who haven't been allowed to sign up. "I feel so guilty," Crockett confesses, his composure slipping. "It makes HCN out to be the bad guy." He doesn't have to repeat the arguments made by other board members: If Health Crisis Network opened its doors to everyone, it would risk not helping anyone. There isn't an apparent solution, and no one is feeling particularly generous tonight. "Personally it sickens me," Crockett says, "because we live in a hostile society."

Crockett sits down and the testimonials continue on both sides. Suarez searches for a consensus to end the meeting, and although the lines are still stubbornly drawn, one of Crockett's comments haunts the group: "What are we going to do to deal with this incredible epidemic?"

After board members from Health Crisis Network promise to try and increase access to their agency, the meeting finally adjourns. Inexplicably, a palpable sense of camaraderie sweeps over the crowd. Board members from Health Crisis Network and PWAC are among the last to leave. They gather together and talk about the meeting. They observe that after so many lonely years of activism, this has been one of the largest community turnouts. They hope for future cooperation. And they embrace before leaving the room.

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