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LOS ANGELES -- Advocates from AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the nation's largest AIDS group, held a press conference today at AHF's administrative offices in Hollywood, Calif. to blast officials from L.A. County's Department of Health Services (DHS) and the Office of AIDS Programs and Policies (OAPP) for their move to stop funding a critical HIV and STD testing program in Los Angeles area bathhouses and sex clubs (known as 'commercial sex venues' or CSVs). Funding for the innovative testing program that targets a potentially high-risk population of men who have sex with men
(MSM) ceased as of Dec. 31, 2004.
The county's action -- or inaction -- comes as the public awaits county adoption and implementation of a much-delayed ordinance to regulate bathhouses and sex clubs. Since Jan. 1, 2005 AHF, which operates the largest alternative HIV testing program in California providing over 15,000 HIV tests annually, has continued to provide such testing and prevention services at these CSVs without county support and funding. The non-profit agency had sought a 'no cost extension' to its CSV testing contract for the period through June 30, 2005, but to date has been rebuffed by county officials, it asserts.
In a unanimous vote last February, the Board of Supervisors directed the Department of Health and County Counsel to work together to draft wording for such an ordinance overseeing and regulating these establishments. At the time, the supervisors asked DHS and counsel to return to the board within 90 days, however, the item has been repeatedly delayed and has languished since then, according to the AHF.
"While we applauded the board's action last February to regulatebathhouses, we felt and stated at the time that 90 days was simply too long for DHS and County Counsel to draft this ordinance, considering the urgency of this public health issue," said Michael Weinstein, AHF's president. "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 that fact that there would be no additional cost to the county. 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."
In February, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted on a motion put forth by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky that called for increased regulation of Los Angeles area bathhouses and sex clubs and also called for improved access for HIV and STD testing and prevention service providers at these venues. The motion specifies 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.
At the supervisors' meeting last February, Karen Mall, AHF's director of
prevention and testing, spoke in support of the motion and ordinance. Mall said at the time, "This is about public health. 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 CSVs and clubs be open to HIV and STD screening and prevention services.
Source: AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF)