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AIDS Activists Demand New Health Commissioner

ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL SHIREY

ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL SHIREY

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | Some AIDS groups are openly calling for Mayor Bill de Blasio to replace Thomas Farley, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), with someone who is willing to use current technologies and tools to respond to the AIDS epidemic.

“I don’t think that Commissioner Farley has been effective on HIV/ AIDS,” said Charles King, president of Housing Works, an AIDS services organization.

“I think the curve of the epidemic has happened without his policies being what has shaped it in a good direction,” he added, “and I would certainly hold him accountable for the intractable continued spread of HIV among young men of color who have sex with other men.”

Consensus that City Hall AIDS Reset Means Farley Must Go

In 2009, Farley replaced Thomas Frieden, who now heads the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and adopted a far lower profile than his predecessor. While Frieden had ardent detractors and fans, Farley has inspired neither. He has not implemented any significant programs to respond to AIDS. Some of the Frieden initiatives that he kept, such as expanded HIV testing, have produced good results.

The state’s redesign of its Medicaid program and the federal Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, were opportunities for the city to increase funding for programs or insurance coverage for people with HIV that New York City has not taken advantage of.

Additionally, the DOHMH has lagged in encouraging post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), in which anti-HIV drugs are used to prevent infection in someone who has recently been exposed to the virus, and has done nothing to promote pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), in which daily doses of an anti-HIV drug are given to people to prevent them from becoming infected.

ACT UP demonstrators staged a die-in outside the January 1 inauguration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, demanding among other things that a new health commissioner be named. | ACT UP NY

ACT UP demonstrators staged a die-in outside the January 1 inauguration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, demanding among other things that a new health commissioner be named. | ACT UP NY

At a December 2 World AIDS Day event, a Farley speech was seen as uninspired. It mentioned only HIV testing and condoms as the primary tools in HIV prevention.

“Many of us were actually fairly taken aback that the one initiative that was announced by Commissioner Farley was a new social media campaign,” said Gina Quattrochi, the chief executive officer at Bailey House, an AIDS housing group. “We all kind of looked at each other and went, ‘What?’ We need somebody who is dynamic and has vision and I don’t think Farley fills that bill.”

ACT UP, the AIDS activist group, protested outside of de Blasio’s January 1 inauguration, which was held at City Hall, demanding that New York City roll out HIV prevention campaigns that include PEP and PrEP, among other tools.

“Remarks by current City Health Commissioner Tom Farley at a World AIDS Day breakfast, more appropriate to last decade’s epidemic than today’s, disheartened a wide swath of the HIV community,” wrote Jim Eigo, an ACT UP member, in an email. “After 12 years of the Bloomberg administration’s indifference to HIV, Mayor de Blasio will have to recommit New York City — in official focus and in funding — to HIV testing, care, treatment, and prevention. This real, hard work will require smart, unorthodox leadership, as passionate and informed about HIV as the communities a health commissioner is appointed to serve. That person is not Tom Farley.”

AIDS groups are currently working with the Cuomo administration to develop a plan to end AIDS in New York. At a December 9 meeting of the groups and state officials, Daniel Tietz, the executive director at ACRIA, an AIDS services group, said that Farley had to be replaced. There was no dissent, according to people who attended the meeting.

Mayor Bill de Blasio at a January 6 press conference. | GAY CITY NEWS

Mayor Bill de Blasio at a January 6 press conference. | GAY CITY NEWS

Asked about Farley at a January 6 press conference, de Blasio said he would not comment on personnel matters, a posture he maintained throughout his transition, and added, “I have a lot of respect for Commissioner Farley and asked him to stay on transitionally. We have not yet gotten deep into the process about making decisions about the future of the Department of Health.”

Asked to respond to that quote, Tietz said, “I’m gratified to hear that Mayor de Blasio and his team are carefully vetting the next commissioner of the [DOHMH]. We certainly hope that it’s someone with a good grasp of HIV and related conditions and who is fully committed to ending the epidemic with the tools and resources we have now.”

King said that the community must educate and pressure de Blasio if it hopes to have a health commissioner who will respond to its demands.

“I think it’s fair to say that de Blasio has not made health a priority and I think it’s fair to say that he hasn’t focused on HIV/ AIDS at all,” King said. “So far as I know, no one in the AIDS community has had an opportunity to meet with him, with his transition team, and with his key staff… I think the community needs to hold his feet to the fire.”

 

7 Responses to AIDS Activists Demand New Health Commissioner

  1. Shirlene Cooper January 8, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    I attended the World Aids Day Breakfast, I spoke with Commissioner Farley in regards to his plans for HIV/AIDS. He mentioned he was going to unveil a campaign which would be resourceful to anyone seeking info on the How,when what , where to get services. I agree with my colleages Gina Quattrochi and Charles King that we need someone whos going to address this epidemic NYC and the future of HIV /AIDS. Our Newly Appointed Mayor Bill De Blasio should be held accountable for selecting someone who will take our needs more seriously.
    Shirlene Cooper

    Reply
  2. George de Stefano January 8, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    Farley's utter lack of leadership on HIV/AIDS is a scandal. The man is only interested in controlling what people eat and drink. He's completely clueless about sexuality, and even worse, like his predecessor Frieden he's hostile to gay men's sexual cultures. He wrote a book in which he condemned the sexual revolution of the 60s and one of his first acts as a consultant to Frieden was to prepare a "white paper" recommending that the City shut down the baths and other sex venues. Then just look at the management of the HIV/AIDS bureau at DOHMH — entirely heterosexual — in a city where gay men and other "MSM" account for the majority of new infections. Gay men were almost completely marginalized by Farley and Monica Sweeney, a self-promoting mediocrity. Blayne Cutler, a straight woman whose main experience in HIV prevention was a research project at Columbia focusing on women, has been the City's director of HIV prevention far too long. (She never should have had the gig in the first place.) Early on in the epidemic, gay men mobilized and provided community-based education and prevention services that saved many lives — mine included. But the straight doctors and health bureaucrats (city, state and federal), with their "interventions" developed mainly in university settings, have run the show for some time now, and the results — awful — are evident. Since 2005, the DOHMH has followed a medical model that is insufficient to prevent an illness that always has had social, cultural, and political dimensions. Farley and his ilk don't believe in supporting community empowerment and organizing. (A rare exception was Dr. Nick Rango of the NYS AIDS Institute, who died nearly 20 years ago.) De Blasio needs to replace useless Farley with a real leader, and fast.

    Reply
  3. Colin Mackenzie January 9, 2014 at 11:09 pm

    Not Marjorie Hill!!!!!!

    Reply
  4. Dana Diamond January 10, 2014 at 10:21 pm

    Wow, this has not been my experience at all. As a positive person sitting on a consumer advisory committee I had the opportunity to have some interaction with Blayne Cutler, and found her to be very responsive to the needs of positive people in New York City. She was extremely attentive when I spoke, in my role as representative of the HIV+ community and the quality of our HIV care. This was not my only interaction with her. On another occasion the organization I work for, Exponents, Inc., had our ARRIVE Program graduation, comprised mostly of Gay men, and Blayne Cutler showed up, uninvited to support the graduates in their most current achievement. She did this inconspicuously, because when we saw her we asked her to come up and speak, she was reluctant to take the focus from the participants. She went on to make a moving, inspirational and empowering speech which left the participants feeling even more proud on their special day, by being acknowledged by someone so prominent who took time out of her evening to celebrate the participant's accomplishments. We felt her commitment then and now. NYC will continue to benefit from her effort and commitment.

    Reply
  5. Tracy Mack January 10, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    I love the fact that we are protected by the first amendment and we can share our thoughts, as well as agree to disagree. After reading two of the comments, I found them to be very interesting and alarming. First being a gay, African American, HIV+, male coming from a community disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, as well as the fact that I have been working in this field for a long time, I believe I have good judgement, skill base and knowledge to effectively share my views. First, after meeting Commissioner Farley, for the first time, I didn't find him to be hostile towards me or my sexuality or offensive in any way. I found him to be very engaging, concerned and interested in what I had to say about HIV/AIDS, particularly in relation to MSM's. I believe with the support and commitment, from our community, which he would certainly need to fill his job, he will be successful. Secondly, Dr. Monica Sweeney is definitely a force to be reckoned with. I was deeply saddened when she resigned from her post at DOHMH. After having many conversations with Dr. Sweeney, I know for a fact that she is neither self-promoting nor mediocre. She came from a humble, community based medical establishment in BedStuy, Brooklyn and she did wonderful things for the disenfranchised community. Thirdly, Dr. Blayne Cutler…I recall my very first interaction with her was when I was interviewed for a seat on the HIV Planning Group (HPG), which should have been 20 minutes in length and it turned out to be 11/2 hours long. Dr. Cutler was concerned about my views on particularly MSM's of color who are HIV+ and how we can address this issue in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. Dr. Cutler also mentioned that she wanted to bring the HPG back to substance and of relevance. I am not overly concerned how this straight woman, whose entrance into this field was via a "research project at Columbia University", got here, I'm just glad she did. I think it speaks for itself, Commissioner Farley's commitment in working with this community, by the people he surrounds himself with. For example, DOH staffers such as: Jan, Daryl, Terrance and David who all bring a wealth of knowledge to the table.

    Reply
  6. George de Stefano January 13, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    At Tracy Mack — you're waiting for Farley to be successful? He's been in the position for years now, and yet nothing has changed in the way the City health department approaches HIV/AIDS. And the HIV infection rates remain unacceptably high among young gay men. So you had a few pleasant conversations with Farley & Cutler. Of course they appeared open to what you had to say — did you think they'd brush you off and not listen?That'd be foolish and counterproductive. But the proof is in the pudding. The HIV/AIDS bureau does not have a single gay man in an executive decision-making capacity, only as middle managers. Dedicated and competent as they are, they do not set policy. All policy is determined by straight doctors who have little knowledge of gay male sexuality and gay male sexual cultures. "How do we reach the MSM?" I recall hearing one straight staff member ask. Well, you can start by letting experienced and knowledgeable gay men lead prevention efforts targeted to gay men and "MSM." And as for community planning, Farley & Co. see it as something foisted on them by the Feds (CDC) that they'd rather not have to deal with. I also suggest you look into the issues around the HIV Planning Council, and its problems with DOHMH, which inspired a letter to CDC. There are very good reasons why HIV/AIDS advocates and service providers cited in the article want de Blasio to replace Farley with a real leader.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: AIDS Activists Call for de Blasio to Replace Health Commissioner | Voices of NY

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