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January 06, 2016

Op-Ed: The Shame & The Pity That Is AIDS Healthcare Foundation

LOS ANGELES—The internet is replete with tales of women (and a few men) who've gotten into the adult industry, found it not to their liking, then went off and joined with one of the myriad pro-censorship groups like National Center for Sexual Exploitation, Pink Cross Foundation or Family Research Council and lamented, in words and sometimes videos, how their exposure to the sexual freedom of adult content production has ruined their lives, their marriages, their family relations, their relationship with "the Lord," etc., etc., etc.. But who would ever have thought that a well-meaning and once valuable non-profit healthcare organization could ruin itself and destroy its standing in the community thanks in part to its president targeting the adult industry for partisan gain—his original plan was that his organization would become the approved STD testing facility for the industry—and when that industry had the temerity to fight back, devoting more and more resources and funds to trying to drive that industry out of California—indeed, out of business altogether—simply to salve his bruised ego? Well, meet Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, whose political and legal machinations have not only earned him the enmity of the adult industry, but also of several members of Los Angeles city and county government—and may easily have put his organization in jeopardy of losing its tax-exempt status due to overspending AHF's donations on partisan political fights, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with AHF's stated mission. Whether Weinstein has put AHF in violation of the federal tax code is a question on many people's minds. Under his direction, AHF has spent more than $7 million on political advocacy during the past four years—at least $2 million more than is allowed for an organization of AHF's size over that four-year period and at least $1 million more than is allowed under the Internal Revenue Code for any non-profit; an amount that also should legally trigger the revocation of AHF's tax-exempt status. In California, Free Speech Coalition has filed a complaint with Attorney General Kamala Harris, asking that AHF's violations be investigated and, if found to be true, prosecuted. (There is currently no information as to whether such an investigation has begun, or if it has, how far the investigation has progressed.) One ongoing problem has been Weinstein's/AHF's campaign against HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and particularly the HIV-preventative drug Truvada, which Weinstein once defamed as a "party drug." But when that didn't fly with mainstream media, Weinstein tempered his language to claim, in a June 19, 2015 press release and ad campaign, that "Mass PrEP administration is a dangerous experiment that is not supported by medical science and is currently resisted by doctors and patients alike." "AIDS Healthcare Foundation is not against PrEP," Weinstein then claimed. "Truvada can absolutely be the right decision for specific patients who, in consultation with their doctors, decide this is the best choice. However, the entire body of scientific data demonstrates that Truvada will not be successful as a mass public health intervention. Yet, this is exactly what PreP advocates, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend." Weinstein also claimed that Truvada was "linked to a significant risk of kidney disease and damage," though researchers had already concluded that the drug posed little danger for those already in good health. Weinstein's answer to PrEP was, of course, more condom use, and that continues to be his and AHF's position, even after the Centers for Disease Control, in May of 2014, endorsed daily PrEP use for "at-risk groups"—a position AHF doubled down on in mid-December, taking out full-page ads in national media with the headline, "PrEP: The Revolution That Didn't Happen." In the ad, AHF claims that, "In July 2012, the FDA approved Truvada for the prevention of HIV (PrEP). It was hailed by CDC and many activists as a prevention revolution. CDC recommended that 500,000 gay men take the drug which it recently raised to 1.2 million. Gilead Sciences, the maker of Truvada, has spent millions funding community groups to promote the drug and more money enticing doctors to prescribe it. Thousands of articles have been published about PrEP. Two and a half years later according to CDC only 21,000 people are on the drug in the United States. Any objective observer has to conclude that most patients don't want to take Truvada and doctors are not recommending it." Actually, "any objective observer" doesn't have to conclude anything of the sort. After all, HIV is a subject many are still afraid to talk about, so it's not at all clear that the majority of gays, intravenous drug users and other at-risk groups in the U.S. are even aware of Truvada, much less its efficacy in preventing HIV infection. Moreover, Gilead Pharmaceuticals, Truvada's maker, has done very little advertising of the drug's preventive capabilities. Beyond that, at a cost of more than $1,300 per month, the drug isn't cheap, though discounts are available to some groups like Medicaid patients. "The failure of PrEP to catch on isn't the biggest problem," the ad continues. "The big problem is that CDC has abandoned promoting other prevention methods such as condoms. STD rates which indicate high levels of unprotected sex are soaring across the board and yet budgets for the diagnosis and treatment of STDs are being cut. Funding for HIV testing, outreach and linkage to care are flat or declining." And there we see AHF's true interest: "Funding for HIV testing," AHF's stock in trade, as well as HIV treatment, is "flat or declining"—and if PrEP use really took off, who knows how that would affect AHF's—and its employees'—bottom line? After all, back in April, AHF was sued by three of its former branch managers, who charged that AHF "conduct[ed] an organization-wide criminal effort across at least twelve states to enhance funding from federal health care programs in violation of the anti-kickback statute (42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(b)) by paying unlawful financial inducements to employees and patients in order to generate referrals to AHF’s various service centers, including clinical services, insurance services, pharmacy services and testing services. The resulting illegal referrals produced thousands of 'false and fraudulent' claims under the Federal Civil False Claims Act... and Florida False Claims Act... and caused at least tens of millions of dollars in fraudulent payments by federal health care programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, as well as HIV/AIDS assistance programs funded by HRSA and CDC." In other words, the suit says, AHF paid bonuses to employees who got people into their clinics for testing, and commissions to those who snagged HIV-positive patients for treatment at AHF facilities. It's no wonder that Los Angeles County has been suing AHF for having overbilled the county $5.2 million for patient treatment! But at least AHF's machinations against the adult industry and PrEP are arguably healthcare-related. What's not so clear is what interest Weinstein and his group have in restricting the construction of high-rise developments in Los Angeles, in what it describes as "a portion of an element or any geographic area of the City that does not have a specific social, economic or physical identity." That phrase comes from a ballot initiative petition created by Weinstein and at least three members of his staff—Ged Kenslea, Peter Reis and Marijane Jackson—titled "The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative," which the AHFers hope to put on the November, 2016 Los Angeles presidential ballot. According to a recent AHF press release, "The measure would void existing zoning laws and regulations inconsistent with guidelines for building in Los Angeles. It also would impose a two-year moratorium on the construction of projects that seek amendments to the city’s building guidelines, with some exceptions, and roll back City Hall’s effort to reduce the number of parking spaces required on some projects." But, of course, the real question is why the AIDS Healthcare Foundation is involving itself—that is, spending donated money that could otherwise be used to treat HIV-positive individuals—in creating an initiative that clearly has nothing to do with HIV/AIDS or healthcare? According to its press release, "AHF is helping lead the initiative because it is a landowner in Los Angeles and concerned about overdevelopment," but that hardly answers the question. However, perhaps that answer can be found in an article published by the Larchmont Chronicle website, titled "Petition for ballot initiative pits two visions of future Los Angeles skyline," which includes a photo of an existing building with two prosepctive high-rises added in, and captioned, "The proposed 'Palladium Residences' mixed-use project, approved by the Los Angeles City Planning Commission in December, is depicted at right. At left is Kilroy Realty Corporation's existing 'Sunset Media Center' tower at 6255 Sunset Blvd., home to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation headquarters offices." [Emphasis added] Yeah, that's right: Michael Weinstein doesn't want his view of the skyline obscured by another tall building or two outside his office—and apparently, when signature-gathering for the petition begins early next year, those workers will be paid out of AHF's multi-million-dollar coffers. We can't help but wonder what Kamala Harris would think about such overtly political expenditures on the part of AIDS Healthcare and its president?

 
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