AIDS Healthcare Foundation Lashes Out at L.A. County

Gretchen Gallen
LOS ANGELES – The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) held a press conference Monday morning on the steps of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Headquarters to protest the slow progress in approving an ordinance that could potentially save lives.

The AHF has been pushing for an ordinance that would effectively regulate bathhouses and sex clubs in the county by permitting members of the AHF or other agencies to offer public HIV testing services to club goers, which typically engage in high-risk behavior.

According to AHF Communications Director Ged Kenslea, the ordinance stems from a directive from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in February giving the Department of Health and County Counsel 90 days to prepare the wording for the ordinance. The motion specified that the Director of Health Services and County counsel work to create and enhance regulations for improved access to HIV and STD testing and prevention services.

A recent Los Angeles County study found that 11 percent of men tested at two Los Angeles area bathhouses in 2002 tested HIV positive, compared with five percent of similar men who had tested in a public clinic or community-based testing center.

However, last week the AHF was informed that Department of Health was asking for another thirty day reprieve, which AHF thinks is far too long.

"On the heels of the whole porn industry scare, we had a lot of interest in this conference," Kenslea told XBiz. "We were very heartened that the Board of Supervisors directed the Department of Health to come up with an ordinance in the first place, but it has taken them way too long and now the 90-day clock is here and they still haven’t come up with a decision," said Kenslea, blaming bureaucracy for the delay.

Although they no longer do testing at sex clubs, AHF formally had a contract to test in bathhouses throughout the county. But according to Kenslea, at the whim of many club owners, access became increasingly limited until the point where they could only access two out of the estimated 11 clubs in the city.

"It's a very complicated process," said Kenslea. "We do not want these clubs shut down, we just want to ensure that whoever does this type of testing in the future has access assured. We believe that a business license is a privilege not a responsibility."

In the meantime, several L.A. Country bathhouses have banded together and hired a lobbyists to keep business as usual and prevent any regulations from being imposed. And while many club and bathhouse patrons might feel relieved to keep their privacy intact, advocates for AHA believe it is a crucial public health issue that should not be overlooked.

"Because of the difficulty we had getting into many of these venues, we stopped doing HIV testing in these clubs back in late January," said Michael Garcia, Regional Manager for AHF's Prevention and Testing program. "Now, we wonder what sort of prevention and testing, in any, has been going on in these clubs since then. Clearly individuals at higher risk frequent these establishments, and they often engage in high-risk activities. We are frustrated that it seems to be taking the County so long to develop what we see as pretty prudent and basic public health measures in regulating these establishments."

Several years ago, AHF put forth a measure to have condoms available in the bars in West Hollywood. While the move was considered a public health issue that could possibly help prevent HIV infection, strong opposition came from prominent local gay leaders who felt that targeting such a predominantly gay section of the city was a form of civil rights infringement. The project was eventually squashed.

"It could come back to bite them or haunt them, but we also thought there was a certain undercurrent of 'leave us alone,'" said Kenslea.

Considered the nation's largest AIDS group, non-profit AHF has been conducting public HIV testing since 2001, which is conducted all over the county in mobile vans, jails, and through the Out of the Closet retail outlets. AHF conducts more that 17,000 tests annually.

AHF has also worked closely with Dr. Sharon Mitchell of the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM) to do HIV testing on adult performers.

AHF is supported by various funding sources, including private donors, federal and state funding, and revenue from Out of the Closet.