The first meeting of the presidential commission on AIDS adjourned yesterday with several members expressing concern about what they can accomplish and uncertainty about the panel's role.
The gay-rights activists and AIDS patients who had attacked federal efforts to combat the disease and the credibility of the 13-member panel during Wednesday's opening session were absent yesterday.
But the commissioners, who had sat through two days of briefings by more than a dozen federal AIDS officials from as many different departments and agencies, seemed overwhelmed by the complexity of their task.
Richard DeVos, chairman of the Amway Corp., said he is most concerned about the "credibility gap" that affects the views of federal AIDS efforts among people "outside the Beltway."
"Why is it that with all this knowledge and expertise, the American people aren't buying it?" he asked.
When Dr. Howard Cohn, deputy assistant chief medical director of the Veterans Administration, replied that acquired immune deficiency syndrome poses unprecedented social, ethical and medical questions involving many federal agencies, DeVos interrupted.
"If you tell people it's complicated, the credibility gap will widen," he said.
Dr. William B. Walsh told White House officials that he was concerned about the panel's ability to fulfill its mandate to advise the White House on the "medical, legal, social, ethical and economic issues" presented by the AIDS virus.
"We have a charter to come up with national strategy by June," he said, adding that he was concerned the commission could spend the next nine months simply reviewing voluminous materials about AIDS issued by federal agencies. Without some coordination at the federal level, Walsh said, he fears the panel will fail.
Ralph C. Bledsoe, executive secretary of the White House Domestic Policy Council, tried to clarify the commission's role.
"What I think the commission would be able to help us with in bridging the credibility gap is to help us articulate those expectations about the best response to AIDS," he said.
The panel's vice chairman, Dr. Woodrow A. Myers Jr., asked Bledsoe whether the report of the Rogers commission, which investigated the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, went to the Domestic Policy Council, as the AIDS report will.
The Rogers commission report, Bledsoe said, bypassed the Domestic Policy Council because it "deserved the president's immediate personal attention" and its recommendations did not require substantial interagency cooperation.
The commission's next meeting is scheduled Oct. 15 at the Loudoun County retreat owned by Project Hope, a nonprofit health-care association founded by Walsh. The commission is also expected to hold meetings in New York, San Francisco and Nashville.