Dems Press Mayor on STD Clinics

Public Advocate Gotbaum, Councilwoman Moskowitz demand better access to testing

A recent Gay City News report on the capacity problems by city clinics in providing services to patients seeking treatment and testing for sexually transmitted disease has prompted separate inquiries by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz directed toward Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden.

An investigation into administration practices at public STD clinics revealed that staff routinely turn patients away. Statistics collected by the facilities’ administration are also skewed because “there’s not a formal logging of persons turned away” as Rudy Gutierrez, the clinic director at the Chelsea facility, stated. Staff across the city’s ten clinics concurred that records are not accurately made of the actual number of patients denied service. At the clinic in East Harlem, for example, where the city records that no patients have been turned away for most months this year, a staff worker responsible for reception responded, “No we don’t,” when asked if records are kept of patients denied treatment or testing.

Health department’s spokesperson Sandra Mullin stated that “clinic managers maintain daily logs of patients we are not able to see immediately.” These numbers, in whatever manner they are collected or generated, are reported to the central office.

Department records for this year show that in the first five months of 2005, the number of patients denied treatment has been, on average, 513 monthly. A rise in the number of patients turned away occurred following the health department’s highly publicized announcement in February about a gay New York man who developed AIDS rapidly, and showed resistance to many available drug treatments. Most media reports characterized the announcement as a signal of a new, deadlier strain of the HIV virus. Demand for testing increased, according to the health department, following the February 11 press conference, and peaked in March. Records indicate that 634 patients were turned-away for all of February, and 559 the next month.

There are no statistics tracking whether or not a patient turned away actually returns another day.

But these statistics on the number of patients told they can not be seen during clinic hours and so must come back another day are unreliable, according to staff responsible for collecting them.

“You don’t have time, we’re busy here, but we try to do what you can do,” said a staff member at the Jamaica clinic.

Responding to the Gay City News report, “Demand Overwhelms City STD Clinics,” City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz’s office in the Fourth District on Manhattan’s East Side began receiving a chorus of complaints from constituents who had similar experiences to those described in the piece. Long wait periods, sometimes up to five hours, were cited as additional frustrations about a clinic system that has been unable under current staffing and budgetary conditions to meet patient needs.

Moskowitz and Gotbaum wrote individually to Frieden asking that an immediate “no turn away” policy be implemented. Both urged Frieden to investigate record keeping methods and wait times.

Gotbaum wrote “these conditions are unacceptable and must change,” adding that “the provision of efficient STD and HIV testing services is crucial in preventing the spread of disease, and individuals seeking STD and/or HIV testing should never be turned away. The Department of Health must take steps to ensure that clinics are adequately staffed to meet demand. Furthermore, the Department should see that clinics are as accommodating as possible to New Yorkers.”

In an interview, Moskowitz told the Gay City News, "This is the greatest city in the world, to be turning people away because of limited hours or inefficiency is not acceptable. I can’t [accept] that San Francisco has a better policy. We are the leader, and we need to act like it.”

Gotbaum is seeking re-election to a second term as public advocate and faces several challengers in the September 13 Democratic primary. Moskowitz is giving up her Council seat to seek the Democratic nomination for borough president. Both candidates have been discussing the STD clinic issue in their campaigns.

Neither official had received a response from Frieden or the mayor at press time. In a response to Gay City News, the health department indicated it was evaluating the concerns raised by Moskowitz and Gotbaum. The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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