Magic Johnson, Mayor Schmoke and the Politics of AIDS

GAREY LAMBERT

October 02, 1992|By GAREY LAMBERT

Magic Johnson resigns from President Bush's National Commissionon AIDS, and Mayor Schmoke appoints Dr. Peter Beilenson to be the new commissioner of health for Baltimore. The two events are not quite as unrelated as they may seem.

Mr. Johnson leaves the national commission on AIDS angry, frustrated and disillusioned by the Bush administration. In his resignation letter, he wrote the president, ''I cannot in good conscience continue to serve on a commission whose important work is so utterly ignored by your administration.''

Magic is right. Despite the president's photo-opportunity panderings, he continues to ignore AIDS, as it has been ignored for the past 12 years of Republican rule.

In real terms, the money necessary to maintain the present insufficient levels of clinical care and research is being reduced, even as the epidemic has grown exponentially. The federally funded AIDS Clinical Trials Group has been cut severely. There are fewer sites for research than there were in 1990, and each operates with less money. Johns Hopkins is one such site and is bracing for a sharp cut in research money. The highly publicized Ryan White Bill was never fully funded, and much of the money to support it was taken from already existing AIDS programs, robbing Peter, paying Paul and deliberately deceiving the public.

Magic is right to protest the failures and deceptions by resigning dramatically and publicly. After all, what could he accomplish by keeping quiet and being George Bush's compliant political emblem?

Perhaps, by timing his resignation so close to the November tlections, Mr. Johnson wanted to dramatize the point that change is necessary.

That is a point not lost on the AIDS community in Baltimore. The concerns expressed here and targeted at Mayor Schmoke are little different from those Mr. Johnson leveled at President Bush.

In Baltimore, the AIDS service providers have been frustrated by an intransigent health-department bureaucracy and a serious lack of leadership. Until now, recommendations and complaints presented to Mayor Schmoke by his AIDS Coordinating Council have been either ignored or merely salved -- treating a migraine headache with an aspirin tablet.

Loosely defined, the AIDS service providers are a collection of nearly 50 organizations and programs providing health care and support services for people with AIDS in Baltimore. The scope of organizations and services offered is impressive.

They provide everything from the multimillion-dollar clinical care and patient services at Johns Hopkins, to the meals provided by the tiny Moveable Feast with its $70 thousand-a-year budget. About 80 percent of their clients are poor and African-American. To operate, they depend somewhat upon donations, but primarily on money from federal and state grants administered by the city's health department.

The mayor won't be flattered, but in the AIDS community he has been compared with George Bush. Like the president, Mayor Schmoke speaks often of his concern for AIDS. As Mr. Bush does, Mr. Schmoke says AIDS is his administration's number-one health priority, but without transmitting this concern to the health department. The result has been anger and frustration in the mayor's AIDS Coordinating Council, comparable to that expressed by Magic Johnson in his resignation from the national AIDS commission.

But unlike President Bush, Mayor Schmoke finally responded to the criticism with his appointment of Dr. Beilenson as the city's new commissioner of health. The AIDS Coordinating Council has greeted the mayor's announcement with relief, even joy.

In the wider world of the AIDS service community, ecstasy is restrained by the gravity of the ever-growing epidemic, anxiety over the impending state budget cuts and a deep-seated dread that the health-department bureaucracy will dig in and resist change. Yet there is hope. Dr. Beilenson possesses public-health credentials and unique political virtues.

In choosing Peter Beilenson, Mayor Schmoke may have made a very astute appointment for another reason. Both he and Dr. Beilenson are advisers to the Clinton presidential campaign. And Dr. Beilenson's father, Anthony C. Beilenson, is an influential California congressman and an important Clinton supporter.

If Bill Clinton wins in November, Baltimore could be well positioned to benefit substantially from new federal commitments to the cities and to health care. Thus, despite the terrible problems that challenge the city's AIDS programs, there are abundant reasons for optimism.

Garey Lambert is associate editor of the Baltimore Alternative newspaper.

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