By Aaron Reiss
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Harris County officials have reclaimed three contracts worth nearly $400,000 from Amigos Volunteers in Education and Service, shutting down the clinic of the financially troubled HIV education and medical care agency.
As The Insider first reported (see "Clinic at Death's Door," May 10), the AVES clinic that serves a mostly Hispanic clientele had been teetering at the brink of collapse for months. AVES's executive director and board chairman is Francisco Sanchez, the secretary of the Harris County Democratic Party.
Charles Henley, manager of HIV services for the county's public health and environmental services, says the AVES contracts will be reallocated. The first priority will be to find a Latino-run organization to provide the services. If that's not possible, then the Houston Area Ryan White Planning Council that distributes AIDS funding will determine how the contracts are reassigned.
Henley says AVES clinic patients are being directed to other medical providers, including the county's Thomas Street Clinic, the Montrose Clinic and the Houston Area Community Services facility.
"We instructed AVES to make sure they don't just tell people there is a place they can go, that they make sure they have referred them to an agency that can handle their needs," notes Henley. "We want to make sure those folks don't just drop out of care."
Montrose Clinic executive director Katy Caldwell reports that nearly 100 AVES patients have transferred to her facility. The former AVES doctor, Shannon Schrader, will begin seeing patients at the Montrose Clinic this week.
Caldwell will be applying for additional funds to cover those patients but says the sources of the AVES money are complicated. Some or all of it comes under federal appropriations sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. One of the strings on that money is that it must go to organizations whose boards and staff are more than half minority. Caldwell says it is unclear what will happen to the funds if there's no such agency in Houston.
Although Sanchez did not return calls from The Insider, the Houston Voice quotes him as blaming former AVES executive director Angela Mora for the agency's financial woes. He says he simply inherited the problems when he took over last August. Mora denies that and says that Sanchez's inability to manage created the current mess.
California legislators were planning to question Mora, an appointee of Governor Gary Davis's, about her role in AVES's problems. According to Henley, the county's financial disputes with AVES are relatively recent.
"The problems that are now being dealt with -- inability to manage the agency in a fiscally responsible manner, submit bills that are timely and allow us to reimburse them for work they have apparently done -- all of those issues have come to our attention during Mr. Sanchez's tenure," Henley says.
In addition, Sanchez's dual roles raise a red flag. He's the agency's $75,000 executive director -- and president of the board that gave him that salary.
"We are very concerned that the president of the board has been serving as the executive director," says Henley. "That is actually an inappropriate relationship that a board member would also be a paid employee."
AVES still runs some HIV education programs, and Henley hopes the agency gets its act together before it completely sinks out of sight.
"We are very much invested in that agency stabilizing because we do not have a lot of resources in that community," Henley says. "But we can only do so much, and we've made clear to them what our expectations are."