Medical staff contract with HERO to end

Health Care for Homeless to stop supplying doctors, nurse to AIDS agency

Care of 100 patients in jeopardy

Move comes as clinic faces scrutiny over use of funds

March 27, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Health Care for the Homeless soon will remove the doctors and nurse it supplies to an embattled Baltimore AIDS organization's medical clinic - a move that could force 100 patients with HIV and AIDS to seek treatment elsewhere if other providers aren't found.

Jeff Singer, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless, said yesterday that he notified Health Education Resource Organization (HERO) Executive Director Leonardo R. Ortega on Thursday that the nonprofit will not renew a contract for medical services that is to expire next week.

Singer said discussions about terminating the relationship began several weeks ago, before HERO's deputy director, Indira Kotval, was fired after alleging to HERO's board of directors that Ortega had misused charity funds. Kotval told the board Ortega had taken $6,000 in bonuses while HERO endured tight fiscal times, paid a personal trainer with HERO money and lent $3,000 to another nonprofit whose board he leads.

Singer said treating patients at two locations has become unwieldy for the two doctors and nurse practitioner, who work at HERO part time under a federal grant while handling a larger caseload at Health Care for the Homeless' downtown headquarters.

"There are a variety of reasons, and I guess the most important one is that it's just been complicated to see clients [at HERO] and not here," Singer said. "It just hasn't made sense for us to continue it in the way that it's been operating."

The move comes as HERO faces scrutiny from several partners and supporters in connection with the allegations against Ortega.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson has asked the FBI to examine HERO's finances because the organization receives millions of dollars in federal grants for services to its 3,500 clients with HIV and AIDS.

The Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations is conducting a review of its certification of HERO under its Standards for Excellence program.

Though a statement released Wednesday by HERO said an internal investigation by its current and former treasurers had found no wrongdoing, board member Lou Curran said last night that "statements that Leo has been cleared of all wrongdoing are misleading and unauthorized. They're premature."

"It's true that a preliminary internal audit found no overt evidence of anything criminal, in our view," Curran said. "But it was certainly not the final word on it."

The board, which met for at least four hours Monday before recessing for one week, is considering an external audit, Curran said. If the board finds that anything improper was done with federal grant money, "the public and the government can be sure there will be an immediate call for dismissal of the executive director."

Curran made his comments in an interview during HERO's "Hey Everybody, Return to Oz" spring fund-raiser at the Maryland Historical Society. He described attendance as sparse compared to last year.

In an interview Wednesday, Ortega said his employment contract, agreed to by board President Carlton R. Smith, provides bonuses and a "wellness package" that allows for payments to a personal trainer. He said the contract also empowered him last year to make a loan from HERO to Centro de la Comunidad, an East Baltimore Latino organization, and that the $3,000 was paid back promptly.

Ortega and Smith did not return phone calls yesterday about the clinic. Ed Geraty, HERO's director of client care, referred questions to Ortega.

The primary care clinic at HERO, based at the group's headquarters at 1734 Maryland Ave., began taking patients a year ago. It serves low-income and uninsured people with HIV and AIDS.

Singer would not comment on whether HERO's troubles contributed to his group's decision to leave the clinic.

"We take all factors into consideration when we make decisions, and the most fundamental issue is what's in the best interest of the patients," he said.

The contract for Health Care for the Homeless to provide doctors was signed in December 2002 and expires Wednesday, Singer said.

The medical staff will work at HERO long enough after that to make sure patients' cases are properly turned over to other doctors - a period that Singer estimated would take two to three weeks. "We will make sure that all the patients currently being seen at HERO get to see a provider somewhere," he said.

Meanwhile, Beilenson said he met with FBI investigators yesterday to provide information about $1.4 million in federal funds that goes to HERO through the health department. HERO has a budget of about $4 million, most of which comes from government grants.

The department will continue to pay the grants, under strict monitoring, during the investigation, Beilenson said. HERO also provides counseling, legal services and a drop-in center.

Sun staff writer Julie Bell contributed to this article.

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