WASHINGTON -- In a stinging rebuke to President Bush, Earvin "Magic" Johnson resigned yesterday from the National Commission on AIDS, complaining that the administration has "utterly ignored" the panel's work and saying that the epidemic "cannot be fought with lip service and photo opportunities."
In his resignation letter to Mr. Bush, Mr. 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 repeatedly threatened in recent months to quit, 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.
Mr. Johnson disclosed Nov. 7 that he was infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS and retired from the Lakers shortly thereafter. This summer, he played on the U.S. basketball team that won a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, and has hinted that he might return to professional basketball.
Deputy White House press secretary Judy Smith said that the president regretted Mr. 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 Mr. Johnson's resignation, Mr. Bush told reporters: "I'm disappointed in that."
Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, campaigning in Boston, said: "He [Mr. 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."
He said that he would try to get Mr. Johnson involved again if elected. Mr. Johnson was appointed by Mr. Bush to the AIDS commission Nov. 15.
The 15-member commission was created by federal statute to help devise a national strategy for combating the epidemic. Its members are appointed by Congress and the White House.
In disputing Mr. Johnson's claims of administration inaction on AIDS, Ms. Smith said that 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. But the AIDS funding numbers used by the administration have consistently included dollars spent for Medicare and Medicaid, which are typically not taken into account when describing other disease funding levels.
Actual spending for AIDS research, education and treatment is now about $2 billion. The administration has asked for about the same funding levels for fiscal 1993.
Mr. Johnson, who has said he opposes Mr. Bush's re-election, 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."
In July, the panel criticized the Bush administration during a meeting with Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, secretary of health and human services, for failing to implement any of the more than two dozen recommendations contained in a major report released last September.
Those 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.