Frank Oldham, former executive director and CEO of the National Association of People With AIDS (NAPWA), resigned from the steering committee of a newly formed PWA coalition one week after organizers announced its founding.
The resignation came after AIDS activists, including people with HIV/AIDS, raised strong objections to the appointment of Oldham and four other former NAPWA officials to the steering committee of Pozitively Healthy.
Organizers of the new Washington, D.C.-based coalition said in a May 10 statement that it would serve as the voice for people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States.
The 30-year-old NAPWA shut its doors in February at the time it filed for bankruptcy. Bankruptcy court documents show it owed creditors more than $750,000 and Oldham owed NAPWA $88,360 in an unexplained “accounts receivable” claim.
Oldham left his post as head of NAPWA last November before news surfaced of the impending bankruptcy.
“The work of Pozitively Healthy is absolutely paramount to 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS,” Oldham said in a May 17 reader’s comment posted below a Washington Blade online story reporting the creation of the new PWA coalition.
“Pozitively Healthy’s work cannot be detracted by personal issues or any individuals,” Oldham said in his comment. “I am resigning from Pozitively Healthy’s Steering Committee at this time and will continue to work hard as a person living with HIV to ensure the success of the PLWHA movement as I have done since 1988.”
The May 10 statement by organizers announcing the founding of Pozitively Healthy says the new coalition will be an arm of the Washington, D.C.- based national AIDS group HealthHIV, which the statement says will manage and have full control over the coalition’s finances and infrastructure.
Brian Hujdich, executive director of HealthHIV, said he was troubled that initial reports of the launching of Pozitively Healthy by the Blade and other publications gave the incorrect impression that the new coalition was a “successor” to NAPWA.
“This coalition was not created as NAPWA’s successor, but was created to continue and expand a consumer voice that was somewhat lost with NAPWA and other HIV non-profit closures,” he said in an email to the Blade.
Hujdich also expressed concern that a photo of Oldham that accompanied the Blade story about the founding of Pozitively Healthy could have led some readers to believe Oldham would be leading the new coalition, even though the story reported that Oldham and the other former NAPWA officials would serve as volunteers with no role in the “fiscal affairs” of the new group.
In an interview with the Blade last week, Hujdich said Oldham and the other former NAPWA leaders, along with other members of the 16-member steering committee, would be responsible for developing policy and setting the agenda for Pozitively Healthy.
“There shouldn’t be an issue about their involvement,” he told the Blade. Noting that the former NAPWA officials have been involved for many years in advocating for people with HIV/AIDS, Hujdich asked, “Why wouldn’t we want to include their voice and give them an opportunity to do this?”
The statement announcing Pozitively Healthy’s founding says veteran Washington State AIDS activist Judi Billings, a former NAPWA board chair, would serve as one of two co-chairs of the Pozitively Healthy steering committee.
David Waggoner, founder and publisher of the Albany, N.Y.-based national AIDS magazine A&U, would serve as the other co-chair, according to the statement.
Waggoner told the Blade he and others involved in Pozitively Healthy envision it as a “truly diverse” coalition that includes individuals and organizations and people who are HIV negative as well as those living with HIV.
“I will seek out celebrities to work with us,” he said. “We’re going to get some big names,” including performing artists who have been involved in AIDS causes in the past.
Several readers who submitted comments to the Blade’s May 16 story about Pozitively Healthy – including Sean Strub, the longtime AIDS activist and founder of POZ Magazine – said their main concern was that at least five former NAPWA officials were named to the new group’s steering committee.
“It seems to me that before the NAPWA gang asks people with HIV around the country to support them in a new endeavor, they should be providing an explanation as to why the organization, under their leadership, went bankrupt,” Strub said in a May 17 reader’s comment.
“So far we’ve gotten zip, let alone any kind of accountability or transparency,” he said. “This has been a problem with NAPWA’s leadership for a number of years and I’m afraid the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, so I’m not optimistic this new venture will be any different.”
Wisconsin AIDS activist and retired auditor Greg Milward, editor and publisher of the USAHIV.com blog, said he was troubled that HealthHIV and others involved with Pozitively Healthy announced the coalition’s formation and its 16-member steering committee as a fait accompli without seeking broader community input.
Hujdich said the formation of the initial 16-member steering committee represented the opening round of a process to recruit more members of both the committee and the coalition.
“We have received over 20 applications from the community to join the steering committee, as well as numerous requests to join the coalition,” Hujdich told the Blade in an email on May 21. “We are very pleased with the response and interest.”
He said Pozitively Healthy would release the names of new steering committee members after a “governance workgroup reviews all the applicants.” He didn’t say who served on the workgroup.
Waggoner said that, among other things, Pozitively Healthy plans to lobby Congress and the Obama administration to restore cuts in the AIDS Drug Assistance Program that came about through the budget sequestration law. ADAP subsidizes the cost of life-saving HIV drugs for low-income people without insurance.
He noted that although President Obama this week arranged to transfer funds from other federal health programs to add $35 million to ADAP, the program remains under funded.
“We’re facing a crisis in this community,” Waggoner said on Tuesday. “And if we don’t do something about it we’ll have 14,000 Americans on waiting lists for AIDS drugs. That’s untenable in a country as wealthy as our, totally untenable.”
Added Waggoner, “I think we need to put that forward as an agenda item for Pozitively Healthy.”