A high-profile AIDS healthcare organization is attempting to soften its approach after meeting pitched opposition to a ballot measure that would require the city of Los Angeles to set up its own health department.
AIDS Healthcare Foundation collected enough signatures to qualify a measure for the June 2014 ballot that would force the city to end its health services contracts with Los Angeles County and set up its own municipal health department within 120 days. Both city and county officials have characterized the initiative as a fiscal and public health catastrophe if it passes, and both governments are suing to stop it from going to voters.
On Friday, the foundation filed a new proposed initiative with the city clerk's office, this one only requiring the city to form a citizens' commission to oversee health services that the city receives from the county. The city would also be required to study the feasibility of setting up its own agency.
Foundation President Michael Weinstein said his group is not giving up on the earlier measure, but he acknowledged that it had underestimated the opposition it would generate.
"We thought there would be more receptivity to the concept of the city having its own health department," he said. But, he said, "I think that [newly proposed] commission accomplishes a lot of our original goals. It creates accountability for how the county provides services."
The citizens' commission would be composed of 15 people appointed by City Council members. They would be tasked with reviewing county contracts, attending county meetings related to health policy, and formulating a health services plan each year. The council would be required to reevaluate each year whether to continue contracting with the county.
Weinstein said he did not expect that petitioning on the new measure would be done in time to qualify it for the June election, so it would likely go on next year's November ballot. However, he said his group hopes that the council would voluntarily adopt the measure before then.
If it does so, he said his group would likely stop campaigning on the other measure, although it is too late to withdraw it from the ballot.
City Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said he had not had time to review the new proposal and could not comment. But a strong reaction came from County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who characterized the new measure as an "ego play by Michael Weinstein, this time to save face."
"I think he recognizes, if he's paying any attention, that his first initiative is a disaster," the supervisor said. "The city is not in the public health business, and it doesn't want to be in the public health business."
Among the 88 cities of Los Angeles County, only Pasadena, Long Beach and Vernon run their own public health agencies. Los Angeles city officials estimate it would cost $261 million a year to operate its own health department, and might require service cuts in other areas.
The foundation has long been at odds with county health officials, even though it holds tens of millions of dollars worth of county contracts to provide HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment services. County officials have accused the group of overbilling by $1.7 million.
Weinstein says that dispute has nothing to do with his belief that the health department is too big and unwieldy and does a poor job responding to health threats including tuberculosis, syphilis and meningitis.
But at City Hall, officials know the AIDS group has political muscle: After the group managed to qualify a measure for the ballot requiring adult film actors to wear condoms on the set, the council voted last year to adopt it outright rather than spend $4 million on an election.