Many Clinics Out of AIDS Testing Funds : Disease: After Magic Johnson’s disclosure that he is HIV-positive, demand for checkups has strained budgets at centers in state.
Five weeks after Earvin (Magic) Johnson’s announcement that he had tested positive for the AIDS virus, public demand for the test has strained the budgets at health clinics throughout California, prompting a search for money to keep the programs going.
Only halfway through the fiscal year, health officials say, several health districts in Los Angeles County and elsewhere have exhausted their state allocations for providing anonymous tests for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS.
Confronted by a wave of heterosexuals newly alarmed about the virus, clinics have continued to provide tests in the hope that government officials will make good on assurances that expenses will be covered despite the state’s budget deficit and plans for deep spending cuts.
“We’re committed to the program and we’re hoping for the best,” said Diane Chamberlain, associate director of the Valley Community Clinic in North Hollywood, one of many operations feeling the strain. “We can’t make people go away. How can you do that?”
Although state officials cut the HIV testing program budget one month before Johnson’s Nov. 7 announcement, it is considered such a crucial tool in stemming the AIDS epidemic that the Wilson Administration and state health officials will find a way to provide the funds even if it means cutting other programs, said Anna Ramirez of the state health department’s Office of AIDS. The program provides free, anonymous tests as a way to encourage people to learn their HIV status.
“We’re in a budget deficit, so monies are scarce,” Ramirez said. “But the Administration is very committed to making sure this program continues, and so is the Health and Welfare Agency. We’ll find the money.”
Preliminary estimates indicate that anywhere from $3 million to $7 million will have to be reallocated to supplement the $5.4 million that had been set aside for free, anonymous HIV testing, Ramirez said. The money provides clinics with a $44 reimbursement per test.
So far, Ramirez said, 34 of the 37 health districts that operate anonymous testing sites have notified the state that they are likely to exceed their allotments. Local health officials in jurisdictions covering Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pasadena, Orange County, San Diego, San Bernardino, San Francisco, Alameda County and San Bernardino have told the state office they have already exceeded their budgets or will do so “within a month,” Ramirez said.
The experience at Valley Community Clinic, where the number of tests it provides has nearly doubled, is in some ways typical. With its HIV reimbursement funds already gone, the clinic has dipped into its operational budget to cover the free tests while waiting for the state to come up with more money, Associate Director Chamberlain said.
The clinic, she said, is also seeking grant money and has placed one request with the newly formed Magic Johnson Foundation to combat AIDS.
Jordana Raiskin, director of the county’s busiest anonymous test site, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center, said clinics are being pressured to cut back on appointments while waiting for promised funds.
But like several other clinics, the gay community center has instead opted to accommodate as many appointments as possible in the belief that funds will be provided. It, too, has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of heterosexuals--especially women--seeking the service, Raiskin said.
Since Johnson’s announcement, the center has performed tests at a rate of 900 per month, with appointments booked through Feb. 8. The program had been initially budgeted to perform 670 tests per month, but the state’s cutback of testing funds in October lowered that to 536, Raiskin said.
Robert C. Gates, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, said he is confident sufficient funds will be provided. If HIV tests succeed in stemming the epidemic, it also serves to hold down public health costs in the long term, he said.
“It’s not a huge ticket item,” Gates said. “What’s far more frightening to me is more AIDS cases.” The average cost of treating a single AIDS case, he said, can easily exceed $100,000.