L.A. County Shuts Down HIV Testing in Bathhouses

Gretchen Gallen
HOLLYWOOD – The AIDS Healthcare Foundation staged a press conference Monday in front of its administrative offices in response to the L.A. County Health Department's decision to shut down AHF's AIDS and STD testing and services in the county's bathhouses and sex clubs.

After waiting nearly a year for the county to approve an ordinance to provide regulation services to Los Angeles-based sex clubs, representatives for AHF were effectively shut down as of Dec. 31, AHF's Ged Kenslea told XBiz.

At issue, Kenslea said, is whether the county should continue to pay for these testing services, or whether bathhouse and sex club owners themselves should foot the bill, which AHF and other AIDS activist groups feel would have a detrimental effect on the sex club industry.

AHF operates the largest alternative HIV testing program in California, providing more than 15,000 HIV tests annually.

Kenslea called the shutdown "vexing," adding that AHF even had leftover monies it could have used to sustain itself until June, regardless of the budgetary lockdown. But AHF was also denied a "no cost extension" by the county and is currently unable to proceed with what it considers an essential service to at-risk patrons of the county's sex clubs.

AHF uses its yearly budget to provide supplies, educational information and pay for costs associated with testing and sending specimens to laboratories. AHF operates on four basic points: to ensure that HIV and STD testing options are provided in bathhouses and sex clubs and that condoms and educational materials are provided.

"It's not that complicated," Kenslea said. "It seems to be boneheaded bureaucracy at this point. We think it's pretty straightforward to continue testing and utilizing the funds we have while the city sorts out the actual finalization of the ordinance."

This week marks a year since County Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky issued a motion to create an ordinance to regulate sex and bathhouse establishments. However, despite the fact that all Board of Supervisors were in favor of some form of regulation, a year later, no formal ordinance has yet been approved and AHF's program hangs in limbo as the Department of Health Services and the county continue to delay drafting the actual ordinance.

"Now, almost one full year later, we have no ordinance, the testing contract has ended and while we continue to provide these crucial services, county officials have told us they will not consider extending our contract despite the fact that there would be no additional cost to the county," said Michael Weinstein, AHF's president. "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."

Kenslea and other representatives for AHF are planning another press conference this week at the Board of Supervisors weekly Public Business meeting, at which there is hope that with support from Yaroslovsky, a workable solution will be achieved.

"We believe there will be action on the item," Kenslea said. "Zev has spoken with the president of AHF and we are hopeful a solution is in the works where we can finally collaborate with the county."

"This is about public health," said Karen Mall, AHF's director of prevention. "Serious infectious diseases continue to be transmitted at these venues while we sit here today... I urge this body to act quickly to develop a sound public health ordinance in order to ensure clients have consistent, accessible prevention and HIV and STD screening services in these venues."

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 5 percent of similar men who had tested in a public clinic or community based testing center. In addition, fewer than half the bathhouse customers who tested positive returned for their test results. AIDS advocates want county health officials to require that all L.A. county bathhouses and clubs be open to HIV and STD screening and prevention services.