A Complicated Reshuffling of Bush AIDS advisersdoesn’t quiet critics

The Bush administration played a game of musical chairs with its AIDS policy personnel over the past week and when the tune finally stopped two gay men had essentially swapped jobs and a third official, a leading conservative advocate pushing an abstinence-only HIV prevention policy, held on to the job she was originally thought to have lost.

Spokespeople for Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), two leading organizations working to influence AIDS policy in Washington that have both been sharply critical of the Bush administration, offered somewhat different assessments of the impact of the shuffle, but both groups agreed on one key point: Scott H. Evertz (pictured above with Pat Ware) , the out gay man, who has served Bush for more than a year as “AIDS Czar”––director of the White Office of National AIDS Policy––was forced out of his job because of his outspoken advocacy for condom use and his criticism of the administration’s over-reliance on abstinence-only education efforts.

“That is certainly what I am hearing,” said Ronald Johnson, GMHC’s associate executive director. “I imagine there is some truth to that. We were as surprised as anyone at the shuffling of Evertz… Scott had been accessible and we feel as though he was beginning to really hear what the community was saying.”

Winnie Stachelberg, political director at HRC, was more blunt.

Scott Evertz was forced out of this job, he was pushed out by pro-abstinence people in the administration,” said Winnie Stachelberg, HRC’s political director. “People were unhappy with his continued support for condom use. People did not like that in the administration.”

Evertz, the first out gay official appointed by a Republican President, will become a senior advisor to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson, focusing on the battle against the global AIDS epidemic. Evertz first met Thompson years ago, when the secretary was Wisconsin’s governor and Evertz headed the state’s Log Cabin Republican chapter. In fact, administration officials said that Thompson initiated the job transfer.

Johnson, who said he always had concerns about how much pull Evertz had at the White House, suggested that he might have more success at HHS.

“We’re hoping that in his relationship with Thompson with whom he’s worked before, he will be able to be more influential, and it will be positive if he is able to address policy issues there, particularly if he is able to work on global AIDS issues where he has demonstrated sensitivity,” he said.

Stachelberg also voiced the opinion that Evertz may be able to accomplish things in his new posting.

“The silver lining is that Scott moves on to a job that he is qualified for and where he will have the resources to do the job he is called on to do,” she said.

Stachelberg and Johnson differed, however, on what to expect from Evertz’s replacement in the White House job, Dr. Joseph O’Neill, a gay physician with two decades’ experience in treating HIV who is now a career public health official.

Under former President Bill Clinton, O’Neill served as director of the HIV/AIDS bureau of the HHS’ Health Resources and Services Administration, the agency responsible for overseeing $1.9 billion in federal Ryan White CARE Act funds. Since George Bush became president,

O’Neill has served as Thompson’s chief of AIDS policy.

Stachelberg argued that O’Neill’s status as a physician and his long record in HIV policy matters may enable him to exercise more clout than Evertz did.

“What we hope and what we will be working toward is to raise the visibility and the responsibility given to Joe O’Neill so that he can be effective within this administration,” she said. “This administration has been woefully inadequate and frankly irresponsible in its handling of the AIDS crisis. We hope that the changes signal some recognition that they need to address these issues differently.”

But, reflecting the amount of ground HRC believes the administration must make up, Stachelberg added, “But we do not know if that will be the result.”

Johnson was clearly less optimistic.

“While I have tremendous respect for O’Neill, he has been supporting a policy direction under Bush that is very troubling,” he said. “I am hoping that in his new role he can articulate the scientific values and the care values that his work represented when he headed up [the Health Resources and Services Administration AID bureau under Clinton].

Johnson specifically pointed to a series of “management reviews” carried out by Janet Rehnquist, the HHS inspector general, that have targeted explicit sexual content in HIV prevention programs at agencies including the San Francisco’s Stop AIDS Project and the Helping Us program in Washington that targets African American gay and bisexual men.

In a telephone interview from the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona several weeks ago, Johnson told Gay City News, “There is an attempt to muzzle the kind of content that is very, very important to prevention efforts, specifically the sexually explicit content that targets men who have sex with men.”

GMHC has a broader set of concerns with Bush AIDS policy related to the flatlining of 2003 budget expenditures for prevention, treatment, and minority initiatives that led agency officials to join a protest against Thompson’s conference appearance in Barcelona.

At a GMHC debriefing forum held this week, Johnson talked about the fight against those in the Bush administration hostile to sexually-explicit HIV prevention efforts commonplace among AIDS advocates.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he told the gathering. “These people are not pushovers. These are evil people.”

While HRC has not employed the same grim rhetoric voiced by GMHC, it is clearly unhappy with one personnel change that did not happen this past week. At the time Evertz’s removal was announced, it was widely rumored that Patricia Funderburk Ware was also being jettisoned as executive director of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Ware, a longtime conservative, is a leading proponent in the administration of abstinence-only prevention efforts. Her appointment late last year, coupled with the selection of former Oklahoma Republican Congressmember Tom Coburn, another abstinence advocate, as the council’s co-chair, drew fire from leading AIDS groups nationwide.

Had Ware’s removal happened, the Bush administration shuffle might have taken on the innocuous air of a house-cleaning, with one gay advocate of condoms being traded for an abstinence-only conservative. But almost as soon as the rumors about Ware began, a second wave of stories circulated that she would be staying.

Asked about reports that Ware would remain in her job, Stachelberg said, “That’s terribly disturbing news. Ware’s posture and emphasis on a pro-abstinence stance is quite problematic. And it puts people here in the US and around the world at risk of death.”

Johnson expressed bafflement at the changing signals on Ware.

“I don’t know what they are doing down there and I’m not sure they know,” he said.

According to the Cybercast News Service, a right wing web outlet, Ware was saved by an outpouring of support from conservatives within the administration and outside it. A congressional source told Gay City News that Ware, an African American, also received support from some leaders within that community. That same source said the administration is now denying that there ever was a plan to dump Ware.