By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009; B08
Noting that the District is the "epicenter" of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation opened a free treatment clinic Thursday in the 2100 block of K Street, at the gateway to Georgetown.
The opening of the AHF Blair Underwood Healthcare Center, named for the Hollywood actor and AIDS activist, was attended by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and officials from the Obama administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the March of Dimes.
The foundation criticized District health officials for not sending a representative.
The city's infection rate, 3 percent, is the nation's worst, according to a study this year by its HIV/AIDS Administration. And the foundation, which calls itself the country's largest nonprofit HIV/AIDS health-care provider, came to the District because of its status as the "epicenter" of the disease, said its director, Michael Weinstein.
He said the city's top health officials "told us we were not needed. We have enough health-care providers. They would not allow us to participate in its ADAP program," the federal AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which provides free medication to patients.
The city has begun to do a remarkable job in combating the disease after years of stagnation, but the "system of care is faltering in some respects," he said. The District needs to welcome any help it can get, Weinstein said, noting that its infection rate is higher than that of Lagos, Nigeria.
Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the District's HIV/AIDS Administration, rebutted Weinstein's account, saying the city welcomed the foundation to its network of medical-care providers. He said he could not comment further.
Health Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson expounded on the government's explanation, saying in a statement that Care Pharmacies Network won a five-year contract to distribute medication to AIDS sufferers during competitive bidding.
City officials encouraged eligible ADAP clients from all health-care providers, including the Blair Underwood center, to participate by visiting sites where the pharmacy operates.
Weinstein said city officials took issue with an advertisement the foundation circulated in the District several months ago. It included a picture of former president George W. Bush peering out a window and saying AIDS is the District's Hurricane Katrina.
"If we need to be a voice to shake up the bureaucracy in D.C., then we will do that, but we prefer cooperation," Weinstein said.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation serves more than 100,000 people globally, according to its Web site. The 15-room clinic in Suite 606 at 2141 K St. has four examination beds and a single doctor, Roxanne Cox-Iyamu.
"We're hoping to get a maximum of 300 to 500 people," said Cox-Iyamu, the clinic's medical director. "We have the ability to bring more people onboard." In addition, five Magic Johnson exam vans will roam the city to test 40 to 50 people a day.
Underwood, who is widely known in the black community, said he lent star power to the clinic to draw clients. On a billboard promoting AIDS awareness in Los Angeles, where the foundation is headquartered, Underwood implores viewers to "Man Up" and get tested for free.
"I need to talk to those men who are out there dating women who think this doesn't concern them," Underwood said. "It does."
Underwood's participation is a key to the clinic's success, Weinstein said. "There are not that many people of his stature who are willing to put their face out there and their name out there for this issue," he said.
Lewis said he supported the clinic's opening because "we must find a way to say to all our citizens, especially our young people . . . that we must do what we can to control the spread of this disease."