After weeks of criticism that it was not doing enough to educate the public about AIDS, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted nearly $600,000 Tuesday to create an office within county government devoted to teaching about the risks of contracting the disease.
The criticism was spawned by recent board attacks on the propriety of two pamphlets--one warning intravenous drug users not to share needles, and another that used graphic, erotic fiction to suggest that homosexuals engage in sex in which body fluids are not exchanged.
To make sure that such pamphlets are not paid for with county funds, the board moved to retain tight control over the nature of the educational program.
At the insistence of Supervisor Pete Schabarum, the board Tuesday stopped short of giving the Department of Health Services the green light to implement the new AIDS education effort. Instead, the supervisors ordered health director Robert Gates to return in two weeks with a plan to teach county health professionals, high-risk groups--including intravenous drug users and gay and bisexual males--and the general public about the disease, and how to reduce the risk of contracting it. The board would have to approve Gates' plan.
The unanimous vote followed a lengthy debate in which the supervisors took turns defending how much the county is spending on the fight against acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
The vote also followed several verbal attacks by Schabarum on Bruce Decker, the chairman of the state AIDS Advisory Committee, who has been the board's strongest critic on the AIDS issue.
In recent weeks, Decker, who was appointed to his job by Gov. George Deukmejian, has been quoted repeatedly as saying that the board majority is indifferent to the AIDS battle despite the fact that more than 1,000 cases have been reported in the county, with more than half of them ending in death. In a recent interview, Decker accused the board majority of "criminal neglect" in its response to the AIDS crisis.
In a telephone interview after the vote, Decker said the board's action was "terrific."
"Today's action demonstrates the fact that there is an urgency, that the board has recognized that urgency and that rather than allowing previous disagreements to get in the way, what we need to do is move ahead and meet this challenge called AIDS," Decker said.
During deliberations, Supervisor Deane Dana said the attacks by Decker and other task force members gave the public a false impression that board members are "cold and heartless (people) who don't care about gays and homosexuals (and the AIDS epidemic).
"That certainly isn't true," Dana said. But because of the criticism by Decker and others, Dana said Gates should immediately begin implementing an education program so that the public will know that the board is sensitive to the issue.
Schabarum, however, said ordering an AIDS program before having a chance to see what it is would be tantamount to caving in to unjustified attacks.
Referring to Decker, Schabarum said, "I'm not going to let some smart aleck from Sacramento tar and feather me." He said Decker's "criminal neglect" accusation "is plain, absolute nonsense."
This year Los Angeles County has budgeted about $10.8 million for AIDS-related efforts--$8.8 million for inpatient care and most of the rest of that for outpatient treatment. Most of that money comes from the state and federal government, as does most of the $400,000 already budgeted by the county. The allocation approved Tuesday will come from the county.