AID Atlanta is "joining forces" with AIDS Healthcare Foundation, an agency led by a controversial HIV activist who has dismissed PrEP as a "party drug" and has a history of suing local providers and public health officials.
AID Atlanta's board voted to approve the affiliation on Thursday, a move that was first reported by the Georgia Voice on Friday. The agencies are "joining forces," according to a press release, but not merging and AID Atlanta is not being acquired, according to an AID Atlanta spokesperson.
The deal is expected to close in the next few days. Financial terms of the affiliation were not disclosed. AID Atlanta says in a press release that the agency will continue to operate under its own name and did not expect to cut any jobs as a result of the affiliation.
“We want to focus on the areas that have been neglected and where the epidemic is at its height. AID Atlanta approached AHF because it’s a fight we want to win," James Hughey, Interim CEO of AID Atlanta, says in a press release.
The partnership will allow AID Atlanta to expand services including case management and health education and prevention efforts, Hughey says.
"We are thrilled to affiliate with AHF in this exciting new collaboration that we believe will transform HIV healthcare in metro Atlanta," he adds.
AID Atlanta will join six other AHF affiliates under the umbrella of the AHF Federation, which includes the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland, Oakland-based Women Organized to Respond to Life-threatening Disease, AIDS Center of Queens County, South Side Help Center in Chicago, ICAN Florida and Impulse Group.
The affiliation continues a months-long period of change for AID Atlanta, which has grown into the Southeast's largest AIDS service organization since its founding in 1982. In February, CEO Jose Diaz quit after a year on the job. Diaz says a cancer diagnosis prompted his resignation and not a budget shortfall and the strain of funding the construction of the Mark B. Rinder Center for Wellness and a new pharmacy.
In late 2014, the agency's development director resigned and a giving officer left in December. Prior to the hiring of Diaz in January 2014, former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard led the agency as interim CEO after it went months without a CEO.
The affiliation also continues the consolidation of HIV agencies in metro Atlanta. In March, AID Gwinnett and Positive Impact combined their agencies.
On Friday, AID Atlanta Board Chair Chip Newton said joining forces with AHF continues the agency's efforts to collaborate with new partners.
“The Board’s transformational strategy has always included partnerships that further our mission and allows us to expand our capabilities in the region," Newton says in a press release. "This affiliation will enable AID Atlanta to continue to be a sustainable organization and continue its mission to provide urgently needed services and programs that help to provide holistic healthcare for people living with HIV.”
The Los Angeles-based AHF, founded in 1987, has grown to become a global player in HIV prevention and treatment. The agency says it serves more than 29,000 patients and performs nearly 132,000 HIV tests in its U.S. operations, which includes facilities in Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Fort Lauderdale and Washington, D.C.
AHF, AID Atlanta fight over PrEP
The affiliation with AID Atlanta will boost AHF's presence in metro Atlanta, where it operates a healthcare center in Lithonia. But joining forces brings together two agencies with drastically different approaches to PrEP led by AHF President Michael Weinstein (second photo), a controversial figure that Slate dubbed "the Enfant Terrible" of AIDS activism.
In December, AID Atlanta joined several HIV organizations across the country in swatting back at AHF and Weinstein for calling PrEP "ineffective" in a massive marketing campaign.
"We at AID Atlanta support wide access to PrEP," Diaz says in the letter. "It is our job to share with those that are at high risk effective options for HIV prevention. By having barriers to access with PrEP, we are losing a proven effective took in the fight against HIV in our own community."
The AHF campaign denigrated PrEP as a once-a-day HIV prevention option in a marketing campaign last August.
"AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) has taken the position that the scientific data do not support the large-scale use of Truvada as a community-wide public health intervention," one of the ads states.
On Tuesday, AHF launched another assault on PrEP with a new advertising campaign in LGBT publications across the country. "The War Against Prevention" questions the use of public resources for PrEP and advocates consistent condom usage, HIV testing and treatment.
And public health officials and HIV activists in Los Angeles, where AHF is headquartered, blame Weinstein and AHF for blocking rollout of PrEP in Los Angeles County. Since 2000, Weinstein has filed 12 lawsuits against the county, according to Buzzfeed:
Since 2000, Weinstein has filed 12 lawsuits against the county, seven of them regarding HIV-related contracts and two over no-bid contracts. The cost of responding in court hasn’t been cheap. In February, Steven Estabrook, litigation cost manager for County Counsel, told the Board of Supervisors that four lawsuits filed by Weinstein were primarily responsible for a roughly $1 million jump in legal costs for the public health department over the last fiscal year alone.
Weinstein’s hard-charging style has also intimidated his industry peers. An official with knowledge of the litigation said several medical providers told the county they would not sign a no-bid Truvada contract for fear of being sued by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
“It’s had a chilling effect,” the official said on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly. “The lawsuits have locked up many of our top thinkers in depositions and preparing for lawsuits — frankly, it’s a shame so much staff power is going to defending these lawsuits.”
AHF accused of kickbacks, bilking feds of millions
In April, three former managers accused AHF of bilking Medicare and Medicaid in a $20 million scam across 12 states. They sued AHF in a South Florida federal court.
Three former managers of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation filed a suit last week alleging the company paid employees and patients kickbacks for patient referrals in an effort to boost funding from federal health programs. Employees were paid $100 bonuses for referring patients with positive test results to its clinics and pharmacies. The lawsuit alleges kickbacks started in 2010 at the company's California headquarters and spread to programs in Florida and several other locations.
The Los Angeles-based company cares for more than 400,000 patients in 36 countries and is leading a mass testing initiative to identify and treat an estimated 25 million people who don't know they are infected, according to its website.
The referrals were key to the company's business model and touted by AHF President Michael Weinstein at a 2013 leadership summit, where the complaint alleges he specifically directed staff to immediately raise the patient financial incentive to $50 and to implement the incentive program nationally throughout the organization.
Weinstein says incentives for linking patients to services are "mainstays of public health intervention." Via Huffington Post:
"Not only has AIDS Healthcare Foundation done nothing wrong, our pro-active approach to finding and linking HIV-positive individuals to lifesaving care and treatment is critical to stopping HIV in this country," Weinstein said in a statement.
He noted that the federal government and state of Florida formally declined to intervene in the legal action, which he says "speaks volumes about the merits of the case."
Weinstein says the affiliation with AID Atlanta will help "ensure better healthcare outcomes" for people with HIV across the region.
"AHF recognizes the critical nature of supporting patients and clients with local grassroots community-based agencies and services that are crucial to ensuring better health care outcomes,” Weinstein says in a press release. “Nowhere is this more evident than in supporting individuals living with HIV/AIDS in metro Atlanta, which has been hard hit by the epidemic. With this new affiliation, we hope we can impact the epidemic in a meaningful way throughout the region.”