UPDATE: HIV healthcare group’s lawsuit over funding settled, suit spurred protest Tuesday _lowres

Avocate staff photo by ANDREA GALLO -- A group of around 20 protestors held up signs Tuesday in front of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation office on Bluebonnet Boulevard. They were protesting the foundation's recent lawsuit against the city-parish and six, local HIV service providers. The case heads to court in May.

UPDATE, 6:55 P.M. TUESDAY

The national nonprofit AIDS Healthcare Foundation settled a lawsuit Tuesday with the city-parish over the way in which the local officials award federal money to groups caring for Baton Rouge’s large HIV community.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation announced the settlement late Tuesday. The settlement was announced a few hours after a group of around 20 people held up signs protesting the lawsuit in front of one of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s offices on Bluebonnet Boulevard.

The suit, filed in state district court in late March, was primarily aimed at the city-parish. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation claimed the city-parish discriminated against it by awarding the foundation $66,376 to treat low-income HIV patients instead of the nearly $1 million the group was seeking.

But the suit also named other Baton Rouge HIV health care providers who were awarded federal Ryan White money that the city-parish was responsible for distributing. Those being sued included HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two Inc.; Our Lady of the Lake Hospital Inc.; Family Service of Greater Baton Rouge; the No/AIDS Task Force; and Capitol City Family Health Center.

Leaders of both HAART and Family Service decried the lawsuit and the tactics of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

The settlement agreement keeps the funding amounts going to the HIV nonprofits unchanged, according to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The settlement also recognizes that the AIDS Healthcare Foundation “can and should receive Ryan White funding for its outpatient care,” according to a news release.

“As the organization that cares for the largest number of HIV/AIDS patients in the city, our goal in this action was to be recognized as a primary care provider and that was accomplished — never was our intention to withhold funding from other HIV/AIDS groups,” Michael Weinstein, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation president, said in a statement.

While the lawsuit was pending, the city-parish put millions of dollars on hold that otherwise would have been awarded to the HIV organizations. That especially worried people in the community who were afraid the nonprofits would be stripped of resources.

Vena Lewis, one of the protestors, said before the settlement was announced that she was fearful of the effect the lawsuit could have on her HIV-positive mother.

“I cannot bear to imagine what would happen if there was no funding for her to get what she needs,” Lewis said. “It has the potential to impact so many people.”

ORIGINAL POST TUESDAY

A group of about 20 protesters on Tuesday tried to gin up support and sympathy for five local, nonprofit HIV health care providers that are named in a lawsuit filed by fellow HIV provider AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Inc.

The suit, filed in late March, is primarily aimed at the city-parish. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a national organization with a Baton Rouge footprint, claims the city-parish discriminated against it by awarding the foundation $66,376 to treat low-income HIV patients instead of the nearly $1 million the group was seeking.

But the suit also names other Baton Rouge HIV health care providers who were awarded federal Ryan White money that the city-parish is responsible for distributing. Those being sued include HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two, Inc.; Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, Inc.; Family Service of Greater Baton Rouge; the No/AIDS Task Force; and Capitol City Family Health Center.

The city-parish has put millions of dollars on hold that otherwise would have been awarded to the organizations in light of the lawsuit. If the AIDS Healthcare Foundation is successful, its suit could force the city-parish to split up the federal dollars differently and strip some services from local HIV providers.

The case is set to be heard May 2 at the 19th Judicial District Court.

“It was never the intention that it would be perceived we are suing our other AIDS colleagues,” said Imara Canady, the regional director of communications and community engagement for the southern bureau of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. He said the nonprofits had to be named in the lawsuit because they are interested parties.

The foundation also chastised the city-parish for withholding funding to the other nonprofits, saying in a news release that it would offer no-interest loans to its HIV peers should a lack of funding disrupt their services.

But the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s recent statements have done nothing to change the way local HIV providers perceive them.

“If they have money to offer low interest loans, why do they need more Ryan White money?” said Tim Young, CEO of the HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two, HAART. “It would be funny if it wasn’t so disingenuous.”

On Tuesday, the protestors stood in front of the foundation’s office on Bluebonnet Boulevard, holding up signs to passing vehicles reading, “Get greed out of HIV.”

Vena Lewis, one of the protestors, said her mother is HIV positive and that she’s particularly worried about the threat of local nonprofits losing their money.

“I cannot bear to imagine what would happen if there was no funding for her to get what she needs,” Lewis said. “It has the potential to impact so many people.”