Fall from Grace

Health Crisis Network's stunning financial meltdown has spurred an outpouring of concern and a raft of rumors

The morning of Tuesday, January 20, began routinely enough at Health Crisis Network, South Florida's largest AIDS service agency. If anything, the 100 staffers at the main office on Biscayne Boulevard might have been a bit more relaxed than usual, having had Monday off in celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday.

Starting at about ten o'clock, though, fourteen of those staffers were called one by one into the administrative offices. "They told us to gather up our things and leave, and that was it. They said they had financial problems and they had to do it," recalls Mercy Ortiz, a five-year employee who had been director of case management for a year and a half. "It was such a shock. We didn't know what was going on."

Two of Ortiz's case managers were also laid off, as was the director of psychosocial counseling, Dr. Wendy Whitfield, and two of her counselors. "After I got laid off, I went to Wendy about to cry," says Ortiz, who is now trying to get by on a part-time job with Dade County Public Schools. "And then they called her in, and she came back five minutes later saying, 'Me too.' And in the middle of all that I was trying to cheer her up." Ortiz offers a bemused sigh. "This is the oldest AIDS organization in Miami. I don't understand how suddenly there's not enough money."

She isn't the only one asking that question.
Indeed, HCN's financial meltdown has stirred up a slew of concerns about the fifteen-year-old nonprofit, as well as some long-simmering animosities. Murmured accusations of mismanagement, malfeasance, and plain stupidity have run rampant among clients and care providers in Miami, which has the nation's fourth-highest incidence of AIDS. The agency's attitude toward the crisis -- a public posture that there is no crisis but private expressions of nervousness -- has only worsened matters.

"What's happened is over the last two years our client load has doubled but our budget hasn't," says HCN's former development director Keith Cromley. "Federal dollars have started to shrink, and we didn't bring in as much as we'd have liked with our fundraising events. We were hoping to develop some other income either through private foundations or corporations, but the support hasn't been at the level we hoped."

This party line, however, has done little to erase the sense that HCN -- once considered the heartiest of AIDS service agencies -- has been in a freefall over the past two months. A few weeks before the layoffs, executive director Marc Lichtman resigned. After the layoffs, most of the rest of HCN's staff was furloughed for the next two and a half weeks. Although many employees continued to work without pay, the agency's 900 clients were thrown into turmoil. One hundred of them, considered "inactive" or not in acute need of services, were cut from the caseload. The rest have had to contend with unanswered phones, referrals to other agencies, delayed appointments, and canceled therapy sessions.

Curiously, HCN's shortfall coincided with the receipt of two large federal grant payments totalling $146,000, a fact that has raised questions about how the agency was spending federally allocated funds.

"Where does the money go?" demanded John Muhammad, chairman of the county's HIV Health Services Planning Council (an advisory board that makes recommendations on allotment of AIDS funds), at a specially called meeting after the layoffs at HCN. "I've been getting a lot of questions from PWAs [people with AIDS] and the community at large. People have been coming and telling me that services aren't being rendered and HCN is referring people out, and yet it just received money. I'm angry about what I see."

In response to the crisis, Betty Alvarez, president of the 27-member HCN board of directors, announced in early February that she was appointing a task force to recommend new measures that would ensure the organization's survival. But during this period of retrenchment, two top managers, development director Keith Cromley and chief financial officer Alexandria Douglas, announced their resignations. Both had accepted jobs -- Douglas as executive director -- at the Florida AIDS Action Council (FLAAC), a lobbying group. Cromley said he stepped down because his doctor had advised him to get a less stressful position. Regardless of the reasons, their resignations, and those of two lower-ranking staffers, conveyed the sense of a mass flight.

In late February one possible impetus for the exodus emerged. HCN announced plans to merge with a smaller nonprofit, Community Research Initiative of South Florida (CRI), to form a new corporate entity. The new group, as yet unnamed, will be run by CRI's current executive director, Richard Siclari. A week after the merger announcement, four more HCN employees were quietly laid off. A teen education program was canceled, eliminating fifteen part-time employees.

In the space of six weeks, in other words, Miami's premier AIDS organization had lost a quarter of its staff and scaled back its programs. Given the planned merger with CRI, few observers now expect HCN to fold. But it's clear the agency will never be the same.

In 1983, the year HCN was unofficially born, AIDS was a barely understood plague that was killing gay men in grisly ways. The group of about two dozen volunteers that eventually called itself Health Crisis Network did things like visit hospitals and take meals to patients at home. Among those involved were attorneys, social workers, and staffers at Jackson Memorial Hospital, which was then the only local hospital treating AIDS patients. Most had friends or family members with AIDS; most were gay men. "We used to have group meetings at the back of a church," says attorney Samuel Blum, a long-time HCN board member. "We would address psychosocial concerns to try to gain some understanding about how we could help families -- or ourselves. At that time if you were diagnosed with AIDS you probably had 30 weeks to live."

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