In a stinging rebuke to President Bush, Earvin (Magic) Johnson resigned Friday from the National Commission on AIDS, complaining that the Administration has "utterly ignored" the panel's work and saying the epidemic "cannot be fought with lip service and photo opportunities."
In his resignation letter to Bush, Johnson wrote: "I am disappointed that you have dropped the ball and that your Administration is not doing everything that it must to fight this disease. . . . I am afraid that there is little that will be accomplished in the next four months."
The former Los Angeles Lakers basketball star, who has threatened repeatedly in recent months to quit, again expressed his long-held frustration.
"Your kind words to me aside, your Administration has not done what it could and should to address a situation which, day by day, poses an increasing danger to the well-being of millions of Americans and which threatens to cast an even wider pall across our nation," he wrote.
Deputy White House Press Secretary Judy Smith said the President regretted Johnson's decision but she insisted that "the Administration and Mr. Johnson are both committed to ridding the nation of AIDS." She described the fight against AIDS as "an Administration priority," adding that "we're very committed to eliminating this disease."
Asked later in Chicago about Johnson's resignation, Bush told reporters: "I'm disappointed in that."
Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, campaigning in Boston, said: "He (Johnson) knows that this Administration has not done anything on AIDS. We've got a good AIDS commission, a good AIDS report, good recommendations--no action."
Clinton said he would try to get Johnson involved again in the fight against AIDS if he is elected.
Johnson disclosed last Nov. 7 that he was infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, and retired from the Lakers. This summer he won a gold medal as part of the U.S. basketball team at the Barcelona Olympics and has hinted that he may return to professional basketball.
He was appointed by Bush to the AIDS commission last Nov. 15.
The 15-member commission was created by federal statute to help devise a national strategy for combatting the epidemic. Its members are appointed by Congress and the White House.
In disputing Johnson's claims of Administration inaction on AIDS, Smith said the Administration had proposed spending $4.9 billion on AIDS in fiscal 1993, up from $4.3 billion in fiscal 1992 "and that's more than on any other disease except for cancer."
It is accurate that only cancer is funded at a level greater than AIDS. However, the AIDS funding numbers used by the Administration have consistently included dollars spent on treatment of those suffering from the disease by Medicare and Medicaid--which are typically not taken into account when describing other disease funding levels.
Actual AIDS spending for research, education and treatment is now about $2 billion. The Administration has asked for about the same funding levels for AIDS for fiscal 1993.
Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan said he too regrets Johnson's decision and praised him for raising HIV awareness and prevention.
"I commend him for the work that he has done in these areas," Sullivan said in a statement. "I know there is more he can and will do, and I wish him success."
Sullivan defended the Bush Administration's record on AIDS, saying that it "has supported increased efforts in research, new therapies for those with HIV and extensive health care services. . . . Our response to AIDS has truly been unprecedented, and our plans for 1993 maintain that commitment. Further, I know this commitment to be directly reflective of the President's personal concern."
Johnson, who has said he opposes Bush's reelection, wrote that "along with my fellow commission members, I have been increasingly frustrated by the lack of support, and even the opposition, of your Administration to our recommendations--recommendations which have an urgent priority and for which there is a broad consensus in the medical and AIDS communities.
"AIDS is a crisis of monumental proportions and it cannot be fought with lip service and photo opportunities," he wrote. "I cannot in good conscience continue to serve on a commission whose important work is so utterly ignored by your Administration."
Last July, the panel blasted the Bush Administration during a meeting with Sullivan for failing to implement any of the more than two dozen recommendations contained in a major report released last September after two years of work.
These included proposals for a national AIDS prevention plan, universal health care coverage and significant reforms in Medicaid to extend coverage to all low-income people suffering from the disease.
Johnson's fellow commissioners and others in the AIDS network expressed sadness at his departure, but said they understand--and share--his anger.
Dr. David Rogers, co-chairman of the commission, said he and others had tried to dissuade Johnson from quitting but "he has a nice simplistic code of honor and he felt he had been betrayed.
"One of our pleas was to hang on (until after the election) and see if the climate would change," Rogers added. "But he felt he was being used by the President."
Rogers described Johnson as "a wonderful breath of fresh air with his intensity, enthusiasm, humor and good nature--which made it kind of special, considering that we are dealing with tragedy every day."
Larry Kessler, a commission member and executive director of the AIDS Action Committee in Boston, agreed.
"He needs to be where he can make a difference," Kessler said. "All of the commissioners are equally frustrated but we aren't as well-known. We don't have the other platforms he has. It's a loss for us but I am confident he will use those other platforms to inform the public and stimulate public policy."
The commission issued a statement saying that "from the moment Magic Johnson announced that he was infected with the AIDS virus, he became one of the world's major figures committed to fighting this epidemic. . . .
"We have deeply valued Magic Johnson as a friend and colleague on the commission. We will miss him."
Times staff writer Douglas Jehl contributed to this story.