About four years ago, Lesly Donald remembers his doctor telling him he had shingles.
“He said I’d be in pain for nine months and prescribed painkillers, then he left the office and never came back,” Donald said. “I sat there for 30 minutes and cried. I never came back.”
Feeling uncared for by his doctor, Donald took a friend’s advice to check out the non-profit AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF).
“I went in, and the staff was amazing. Everybody smiled,” said Donald, a 43-year-old Downtown Los Angeles resident. “I walked in and saw Dr. Felipe (Findley). First thing he did was shake my hand and hug me. I knew then I was in for some good care. I’ve never had a doctor hug me before.”
Two years ago, Donald got an even bigger shock. He was diagnosed with liver cancer.
He credits Findley’s “compassion and love” with keeping his “spirits high” through a successful operation one year ago. “If your spirit is good, you can heal better,” Donald said.
Today, despite all that Donald has gone through, it’s his doctor he’s worried about.
“When he (Findley) says doctors are not being taken care of because they’re understaffed, I want to fight for their care like he fought for mine,” Donald said.
On Friday morning, AHF medical staffers, including Findley, protested outside the foundation’s headquarters at 6255 Sunset Blvd. at Vine. They contended the AIDS-focused nonprofit, which runs HIV and AIDS testing and treatment facilities around the world and operates 10 clinics in the greater Los Angeles area, has lost sight of its health care mission. As a result, they say, patient care is suffering. On July 21, medical staffers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to allow them to organize under the National Union of Healthcare Workers. They claim the AHF clinics are understaffed, medical staffers are pushed to see too many patients each day and that AHF focuses too much on political issues to the detriment of patient care.
AHF opposes the union petition, arguing that some of the doctors organizing the effort are supervisors and thus not allowed to take part in union organizing.
Ged Kenslea, AHF’s senior director of communications, said three of the five “principal organizers” — doctors Cathy Chien, Kim Sommers and Jay Hamwi — are “not legally permitted under governmental protocol to organize. They are managers in our view.”
The medical staff disagrees. “This is false,” they said in a press statement… Although some medical providers at AHF carry a title that would suggest a management role, the title is in name only. The reality is, AHF medical providers have no power — that is, not to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign reward or discipline other employees, or responsibly to direct them.”
Both sides are awaiting a decision from the labor relations board.
At the rally, Donald was joined by a number of patients who echoed his concerns — many with their doctors by their side. Members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers also were present.
While doctors say they are forced to see too many patients a day, and that they are given a 20-minute time limit to see them, AHF claims they don’t see enough.
AHF decided years ago that doctors would be required to see 14 patients a day, which it says is “far below the norm in medicine….Unfortunately, in recent years, this fell to 11 patients being seen per day,” AHF said in a statement. “The result of seeing few patients, coupled with doctors and providers blocking their schedules, was patients waiting up to 10 weeks for an appointment. This resulted in thousands of our patients falling out of care, which is intolerable to us.”
When pressed to confirm whether doctors have been given a 20-minute block to see patients, Kenslea said, “I’m sure there are guidelines that are set. I don’t think 20 minutes is an unreasonable window to see a straight-forward patient.”
He said the appointment time can be expanded to 40 minutes, depending on the circumstances.
Dr. James Adams, who was at the rally, said he is the only full-time physician at AHF’s Westside Healthcare Center in Beverly Hills. He said that center sees 2,500 patients and employs, in addition to him, one full-time physician’s assistant, three nurse practitioners and one part-time doctor. “I am willing to endure whatever I need to for patients,” Adams said. “… it’s unacceptable there is only one full-time physician.”
Providers also claim that AHF administrative staffers, who have no medical training, make decisions driven solely by financial concerns to increase productivity. And they complained about the turnover of employees at AHF.
“There has been a lot of turnover,” Kenslea agreed. “We’ve had to fire a few physicians, not related to this, and it was well before this. But I don’t think that’s exclusive to AHF. In the past few years I would think that’s been uniform in practices.”
The union organizers’ contention that AHF has begun to shift its focus more to political issues and away from health care has thrown a spotlight on Michael Weinstein, AHF’s founder and president, who has engaged the organization in a number of lawsuits and political battles. In 2010, Los Angeles County determined that AHF had misspent $1.7 million in funds allocated by the county and decided to conduct an audit of the organization. AHF responded by filing a federal suit in July 2012 against the county and Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents West Hollywood, and Gloria Molina saying that the audit was “illegitimate” and “retaliatory” and asking that it be postponed. AHF also protested a county decision to shift a $1.2 million contract for AHF services in the Antelope Valley to the Tarzana Treatment Center.
In a separate suit, AHF asked an LA County Superior Court judge to invalidate a $75 million contract the county granted to Ramsell Public Health RX in 2012 to expand its network of pharmacies serving low-income people with HIV. The judge did invalidate the Ramsell contract, agreeing with AHF’s contention that it hadn’t been subject to competitive bids in which AHF might have participated.
AHF also criticized the county Department of Public Health in April, contending that it was ignoring a possible epidemic of meningitis in the gay community. That contention, based on the death of a gay West Hollywood man from meningitis, sparked a panic in the city, with gay men hurrying to AHF clinics to get meningitis vaccines. AHF said it was prepared to spend a substantial sum, offering up to 10,000 vaccinations for meningitis, which typically cost $100 or more, for free. A health department study soon determined there was no connection between the West Hollywood resident’s infection and that of other gay men in an outbreak in New York City, which had been alleged, and there was little to no risk of an epidemic.
AHF has successfully campaigned for signatures to put on the June 2 general election ballot a proposition that would force the City of Los Angeles to withdraw from the county Department of Public Health and establish its own health department. The LA City Council is challenging the legality of that ballot measure, with city officials arguing that the city doesn’t have the resources to provide the same level of service its residents currently receive from the county Department of Public Health.
AHF also fought successfully for a proposition approved by Los Angeles County voters in March that requires that adult film performers wear condoms. And it has filed suit in Florida against a California adult film production company that moved one of its non-porn filmings to a location there.
Kenslea defended AHF’s spending on lawsuits and political campaigns. “Cost-wise we have not spent an inordinate amount of advocacy,” he said,