Burning Down the House

After the closing of an apartment building for AIDS victims in Fort Lauderdale, the city's ability to oversee a multimillion-dollar, federally funded program is called into question

In a last-ditch effort to salvage the grant, HRSA had brought in Collier Health Services, based in Immokalee, to work with Sunshine on restoring fiscal order. But Steven Weinman, Collier's chief financial officer, says that the Sunshine clinic in Pompano Beach was in such disarray that his group didn't want anything to do with the clinic. "When we went there, the building was falling apart," he recalls. "If you went to a veterinarian that looked like that, you wouldn't leave your dog there."

Collier has since been awarded the HRSA grant and recently opened the Thomas N. Anthony Medical Center, just a few blocks from Sunshine's clinic. Weinman believes that his organization is capable of providing medical care for all poor people in that area. "I don't really see any reason for Sunshine Health Center," he says.

Even so, Sunshine reopened its doors last November with Gibson, who has worked with several medical clinics in Miami, at the helm -- at about the same time the housing facility on SW 15th Avenue was being boarded up. "Our center was mired in controversy, but since we reopened we're very excited," Gibson says.

Sunshine is banking on young mothers and the elderly -- and the Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements that they draw -- to help the clinic back to financial solvency. "I think Sunshine needs to demonstrate that it can run a clinic effectively before they apply for grants again," Gibson says.

There are already signs, however, that Sunshine has not changed for the better. According to the group's 1998 informational tax return, Sunshine's income for the year was just $148,100. Its debts, meanwhile, totaled more than $1.1 million.

"I really don't know how they manage to keep that place open," says Weinman.

One unsettling possibility is fraud. According to several Sunshine patients, the clinic, when it reopened last November, offered economic incentives to at least some clients for their patronage. Madeline Morgan says that, for almost three months in early 1999, she -- along with other people infected with HIV -- was paid $20 a day, or $100 each week, by Dale Gibson to receive intravenous protein injections at Sunshine Health Center.

"When we got finished, he would call us in the back room, and he would give us money," she recalls.

Morgan adds that Medicaid, the federal health-care program for poor families, was then billed for the services. Patients were told the protein infusions -- which are of dubious medical value -- were part of a research program. The paydays were eventually reduced to three times a week, according to Morgan, and then stopped completely.

Carmela Warren and her fiancé, John Eric Myers, tell a similar story. They claim they were paid by Sunshine to receive protein infusions, which were then billed to Medicaid. Warren notes that she was eventually cut off by Sunshine officials. "They told me I couldn't come back anymore because my Medicaid wasn't covering it," she says.

Adds Myers: "They was most definitely billing Medicaid."

Although both Morgan and Warren, as former residents of the SW 15th Avenue facility, could be seen as holding a grudge against Sunshine, their accounts are confirmed by others. Two sources who work with HIV patients in Broward County on a daily basis but do not want their names used, say that clients have told them similar stories about Sunshine paying clients for protein infusions. Moreover, Ruben Chavez, an investigator with the Florida Attorney General's Office, confirms that his office is conducting a Medicaid fraud investigation of Sunshine. He would not, however, provide details.

Gibson denies the allegations, calling them a "gross, gross, gross mischaracterization." But his explanation of the misunderstanding doesn't make much sense. He claims that when the clinic initially reopened last November, clients were offered turkeys and gift certificates as both inducements to patronize Sunshine Health Center and as goodwill gestures for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. "In the clients' minds," he says, "they interpreted this as we were paying them."


Sunshine is not the only player in the HOPWA controversy that has returned to business as usual. For three months now, Kathryn Malie has been back at her spacious office in downtown Fort Lauderdale and her duties as community-economic development planner. She spends most days researching various policy questions and searching for new sources of funding for the city. She communicates with her boss, Faye Outlaw, primarily via e-mail and intraoffice memo.

The prospect of finding a new job has certainly occurred to Malie, but she says she wants to get the entire Sunshine episode resolved before moving on. She believes the letter of reprimand in her personnel file would tar her reputation and make getting a decent job difficult -- despite 14 years of work for the city. "I will never manage anything for any city government again," she says. "It's thankless." Malie is even contemplating filing a lawsuit against the city.

In August she had a meeting with another city official -- City Manager Floyd Johnson -- to discuss her insistence that the letter of reprimand be removed from her file, that her lawyer's fees be reimbursed, and that the Sunshine audit be amended. Malie attended the meeting without her lawyer, as the city manager had requested. After discussing her situation for about 30 minutes, Johnson told Malie that he would get back to her in about a week. It's now been two months. She has yet to hear from him.

Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address:
Paul_Demko@newtimesbpb.com


RELATED LINKS

HUD's HOPWA homepage

Broward Regional Health Planning Council

HRC: Housing and AIDS

House of Hope
substance abuse center

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