Schaefer's advisory council on AIDS to go it alone

January 13, 1993|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

Puzzled by news the governor planned to disband them, members of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's advisory council on AIDS decided last night to work as an unofficial watchdog for the legislature or anyone else who wants to listen.

The decision came at the end of a meeting in which members, although clearly miffed, seemed resigned to extinction after five years of advising a governor with whom they were frequently at philosophical odds.

But the council shifted direction after a few of its members and several activists said Maryland needs their technical advice, especially on the raft of AIDS-related proposals likely to face the legislature this session.

Also, the group had just heard a detailed report by Dr. John Bartlett of Johns Hopkins Hospital describe an AIDS epidemic in which patients must wait several weeks for their first appointment in Maryland; few doctors outside major hospitals treat AIDS patients, and many indigent patients use hospital emergency rooms because they don't have private doctors.

Suddenly, the group seemed less willing to go quietly.

"Maybe we should go sell ourselves to the legislature and exist independent of the governor," said John R. Watson III, a librarian who serves on the council. Dr. Liza Solomon, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, rose from her seat in the audience and asked the group to become "a people's advisory council or a legislative advisory council."

Without setting a date, the panel agreed to meet again next month and consider any bills before the legislature. With the General Assembly convening today, at least one AIDS bill seems certain to stir controversy: an administration proposal that would require doctors to report the names of anyone who tests positive for the AIDS virus.

Dr. Richard Johnson, chairman of the 22-member panel, said he had heard nothing from the governor's office since media reports last week that Mr. Schaefer would dissolve the group because he felt it had focused too much on patients' rights and too little on education and prevention.

"The only source of information I have is from the press," said Dr. Johnson, a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

But in a letter to the governor, Dr. Johnson said the group had concentrated exactly on the issues Mr. Schaefer had deemed important. He also expressed some bewilderment that the governor had not responded to the group's call for a statewide "summit" on education that would pull together school boards, teachers, students and community leaders. The purpose would be to enable communities to develop their own education agendas. And he said:

"At a time when Maryland is becoming one of the major epicenters of the AIDS epidemic, at a time when more teen-agers and newborns are being infected in this state, and at a time when financial stresses of caring are at a limit, it is not a time to de-emphasize the importance of AIDS prevention and treatment.":

Since the epidemic surfaced in 1981, more than 5,300 cases of AIDS have been diagnosed in Maryland -- although the number of people harboring the virus that causes AIDS could exceed 16,000, according to some estimates.

Dr. Bartlett said Maryland compares favorably to other states in its response to the AIDS epidemic. It ranks sixth in spending for AIDS care, and local universities along with the state AIDS Administration have done a good job attracting grants, he said.

But he said the state still faces difficult challenges. Private donors and foundations, he said, have virtually ignored the AIDS epidemic. And blacks, women, drug users and Medicaid recipients are far less likely to get helpful drugs such as AZT early in their infection.

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