AIDS Chief In D.C. Quits After 6 Months
Lack of Resources, Personal Needs Cited

Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 23, 1994 2:00 PM

The District administrator responsible for leading the fight against AIDS has resigned after six months on the job, becoming the third high-ranking city health official to quit in frustration within the last several weeks.

Frank Oldham Jr., chief of the District's Agency for HIV/AIDS, said he has been unable to secure the tools vital to combating the rapidly spreading AIDS crisis here -- tools that include more employees and money for his agency and more help for dozens of shoestring community groups working to slow the epidemic or assist people who already are sick.

In the resignation letter he submitted Monday, Oldham said he was leaving to move closer to his frail, elderly parents in New York, where he previously worked in that city's government to try to curb AIDS and improve health care for homosexuals.

But in an interview Tuesday night, he said of his brief tenure in the District, "Without a doubt, other bureaucracies have been more responsive." He said the city will not become truly effective in fighting AIDS unless his agency reports directly to the mayor, circumventing the usual rules for hiring workers and awarding contracts.

His departure comes after the resignations last month of the two members of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly's Cabinet responsible for safeguarding residents' health: D.C. Public Health Commissioner Mohammad Akhter and David Coronado, the administrator in charge of the District's Medicaid program.

Oldham's resignation, effective in late July, also represents the second change in less than a year at the helm of the city's AIDS agency. And it comes as the epidemic is spreading more rapidly here than in any other major U.S. city, making particular inroads into the District's black and Latino communities.

Yesterday, many of the city's AIDS activists expressed dismay at the prospect of another vacancy in the top job in the branch of city government responsible for trying to prevent new AIDS cases and help people who already are infected. About 6,000 District residents have been reported to have contracted AIDS since the epidemic surfaced here in the early 1980s. More than half of them have died.

The activists said Oldham's departure will hinder those efforts, slow the healing of fractious relationships among local AIDS groups and make it more difficult to recruit a high-caliber successor.

"Would you take a job [from which] somebody walked away in six months and the last person got fired because they were accused of being a racist?" asked Christopher H. Bates, administrator of the D.C. CARE Consortium, an umbrella organization that represents a cross section of AIDS groups in the District.

Oldham succeeded Caitlin Ryan, who was dismissed last summer after allegations that she tried to steer a contract for an AIDS prevention campaign away from a clinic with ties to the Nation of Islam.

Vincent C. Gray, director of the District's Department of Human Services, said that, despite the loss of another top administrator, AIDS "will continue to be at the highest level of priority." He noted that Kelly spared the AIDS agency from budget cuts this year.

Oldham's resignation is not the first time his relationship with the District government has taken an unexpected turn.

He went through five interviews and was informally offered the job in October.

But he turned down the position, saying that its salary, $ 70,500, was too low to allow him to commute to see his parents and that it was fraught with too many community and internal conflicts.

He changed his mind the next month and started work in January. Now, he said, he plans to return to his old job in the New York City health department, as director of the Office of Gay and Lesbian Health Concerns.

Oldham, 45, is African American and gay; he developed a reputation in New York as a consensus-builder.

In his brief tenure in the District, he created an office specializing in gay health issues within the agency, although it has not gotten the staff he said he was promised.

He also enlisted community leaders as advisers.

In particular, he formed smooth working relationships with local AIDS leaders who have at times been rivals.

They include Jim Graham, administrator of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which has roots as a gay health clinic and is one of the nation's largest providers of help for people with AIDS. They also include Abdul Alim Muhammad, director of the Abundant Life Clinic, a source of alternative treatment for AIDS that provides care for many of the city's poor, African American AIDS patients.

Several AIDS activists said Oldham was skilled at building consensus but has not stayed long enough to translate a more cooperative spirit among activists into better services for people infected with the fatal disease.

Oldham said he found it easier to start closing divisions within the community than to navigate the city's bureaucracy.

He proved unable to persuade other human services administrators to subsidize a new coalition of black and Hispanic AIDS groups that is led by Muhammad.

He resigned days after city officials decided to award the District's main, $ 1.2 million AIDS grant to Whitman-Walker, a decision that he said "could have been fairer."

Oldham said he also was discouraged by the resignation of Akhter, who he said, like him, believes in helping residents to care for their own health.

He praised Kelly as "someone who cares about people living with HIV and AIDS with her heart." But, he said, "when things don't happen to work out right, it is indeed frustrating."

© 1994 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive