The nonprofit AIDS Healthcare Foundation has spent more than $115,000 on an advertising campaign slamming Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's office for cutting funding for the national group that runs two clinics in Baton Rouge.
AHF started airing television ads on local airways in July that criticize Broome's decision to cut off the national organization's share of the federal funding Baton Rouge spends on HIV treatment and testing. The ads note that Baton Rouge is ranked second nationally for its rate of new HIV infections, and ask why Broome is "discontinuing funding for HIV clinics in Baton Rouge."
AHF, which opened its first clinic in Baton Rouge in 2013, filed a federal lawsuit in April against the city-parish, alleging it was unfair and illegal for Broome's administration to drop the nonprofit's contract for federal grant money. Broome's administration countered that AHF was not complying with grant reporting requirements and therefore was no longer eligible to receive the money.
While the lawsuit slowly plays out in federal court, AHF has showered the airways with more than $115,000 worth of ads, based on the organization's filings with the Federal Communications Commission. That’s more than double the $42,000 AHF got from the city-parish last year to care for HIV patients before its contract was killed after the city-parish said AHF was not providing the necessary documentation to continue to receive federal money.
City Hall administers the federal Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, which reimburses health care providers for their work treating poor people who have the disease. It covered costs in the Baton Rouge area for 2,580 people living HIV/AIDS during the 2016-2017 grant cycle.
The city-parish received more than $4 million this year in Ryan White funding and spread it across three clinics that provide HIV medical care and three nonprofit groups that concentrate on case management and other supportive services, said Shamell Lavigne, the program administrator. This year, AHF was excluded as an entity eligible to receive Ryan White dollars.
The conflict between Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's office and the AIDS Healthcare F…
Before AHF's contract was canceled, the national nonprofit was initially allowed to tap up to $181,876 in 2016 grant money, receiving reimbursements for any outpatient care, case management, early intervention, medications and transportation for people with HIV in the Capital City.
But as AHF turned in its monthly invoices for reimbursement, City Hall saw how little AHF was spending on those services and moved more than $100,000 to other local HIV service providers, Lavigne said. AHF claims that its clinics care for 30 percent of the people with HIV/AIDS in Baton Rouge, but other providers have disputed that figure.
City Hall shrunk AHF's spending cap through the Ryan White grant to $80,854, but AHF finished the grant year having spent only $42,221, according to city-parish records. The city later cancelled the contract entirely, saying AHF could no longer be reimbursed with federal funds if the nonprofit did not provide information about its participation in a discounted drug pricing program.
AHF did not answer The Advocate's questions about the amount of money the organization received from the city or about the money spent on the ad campaign. The nonprofit's southern bureau chief did say, though, that Baton Rouge cannot expect to cure its HIV epidemic by continuing to follow old scripts that have not solved the problem.
"The focus of the lawsuit is not about the amount of money given by the City-Parish, but for the ability to be able to shift the trajectory of the epidemic that is greatly impacting the people of Baton Rouge,” said Michael Kahane, AHF Southern Bureau Chief, in a statement.
"The epidemic in the City-Parish is proof that what is being done there is not working," he continued. "It is unfortunate that a community so impacted by HIV is not willing to embrace change and challenge all of those providing care to improve services rather than being satisfied with that which has been proven to not work.”
In its 30 years of operating, AHF has ruffled feathers in a multitude of places, filing lawsuits against government municipalities including Dallas County, Los Angeles County, and Orange County, Florida, as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The foundation had more than $317 million in revenue in 2015, according to its 990 tax form for that year.
Longtime Baton Rouge HIV providers have butted heads with AHF since the national nonprofit started operating here a few years ago. In 2016, AHF filed a separate lawsuit against the city-parish and local HIV service providers, claiming Baton Rouge should have allocated a larger share of Ryan White money to AHF. The city-parish settled that lawsuit.
Told how much AHF has spent on its advertising campaign complaining about cuts to its funding, Open Health Care Clinic CEO Tim Young listed the ways in which his organization could use $115,000 to treat those with HIV. The money could translate into 2,400 people being tested for HIV or 3,000 having visits with a medical provider, he said.
Open Health could hire two full-time social workers with $115,000 or give 415 people dental exams, he said.
"The real issue here that AHF is not saying is that they want this Ryan White money so that they can generate not $115,000, but millions in pharmacy profits and they don't want to report on it," Young said.
Young was referencing another federal program that most HIV providers participate in called 340B, which lets health care providers who treat the poor purchase medicines at discounted prices. When a clinic that uses 340B treats a patient with private insurance, the insurance company still gives the clinic the higher reimbursement rate for the patient's medicines rather than a reimbursement equivalent to the cheaper price at which the clinic bought the drug. The extra money can then be pocketed by the clinic.
The 340B program is the crux of the legal dispute between the city-parish and AHF. The city-parish requires those that receive Ryan White money to provide information about their use of the 340B program. But AHF has refused to provide that information, with one of their attorneys saying in a July interview that Baton Rouge is the only municipality that asks for the 340B information and that doing so is "improper."
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Baton Rouge AHF Physician Waref Asmeh, an infectious disease specialist, also said in a July interview that money made from the 340B program has been invested back into AHF clinics to get them running.
The city-parish declined to comment on AHF's ad spending because of the ongoing lawsuit.
AHF signed agreements to run ads with local CBS, ABC and NBC stations in July, August and September. Thus far, AHF has paid $76,240 to WAFB, $28,177 to WBRZ and $10,718 to WVLA, according to the net amounts listed on AHF's ad agreements available through the FCC. The ads that have run thus far mostly aired during local news broadcasts, late-night comedy shows, occasional dramas including "Scandal," and an NFL game.