WASHINGTON -- The bipartisan National Commission on AIDS said yesterday that the Bush administration had failed the nation by its poor leadership in combating the AIDS epidemic.
The commission released a statement after what commission members said was an extraordinarily disappointing meeting Wednesday on AIDS and government leadership with Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, secretary of Health and Human Services.
The commission, appointed jointly by Congress and the White House and charged with creating a national consensus on what should be done about AIDS, said in its statement, "President Bush and the Department of Health and Human Services have failed to meet fully their responsibilities in leading the national response to the monumental human suffering and economic loss from the HIV/AIDS epidemic."
A department official said that Dr. Sullivan "was ambushed" by the commission's negative comments after the meeting. Administration officials present at the meeting could not be reached for comment, but the department issued a statement yesterday from Dr. Sullivan that said:
"The charge by the commission is a total misrepresentation of the facts and the commitment of the Bush administration. In all of American public health history, no single disease has ever occupied so much attention and commanded so many resources in so short a time.
"HIV infection and AIDS continues to be one of the highest public health priorities of this administration."
Dr. June E. Osborn, chairman of the commission, said in an interview yesterday that she felt Dr. Sullivan had been "very unresponsive" at the meeting. "He told us that he had a lot of work to do and that everyone is working very hard," she said. "In other words, business as usual. This epidemic is an immense, historical tragedy, and business as usual is not enough."
The purpose of the meeting between the secretary and the commission members was to review what the department has done to carry out the commission's recommendations in September. At that time, the commission outlined 30 steps that the government could take to help get the epidemic under control.
The statement listed these indications of the Bush administration failure to act:
President Bush has given only one speech on AIDS, in March 1990, has placed no emphasis to legislative proposals on AIDS and has "signaled no sense of urgency to either the American people, or to his own domestic policy experts."
The government has not increased funds for programs to prevent AIDS and has allowed funds for existing prevention programs to drop from $497 million in 1991 to $480 million in 1992.
Separately, the AIDS Action Council, a Washington lobbying group for AIDS organizations, said that the administration had failed to issue regulations that would allow people with AIDS to apply for help with housing payments.
The bill appropriating $50 million for that purpose was passed last fall, and the council pressed the agency to make the money available. But by April when no rule was forthcoming, the council got agreement from Housing and Urban Development Assistant Secretary Anna S. Kondratas that the rule would be published by June 1. A HUD official said yesterday that the agency did not meet the deadline but that it would put out the rules soon.
Daniel T. Bross, director of the AIDS Action Council, said that the government's response was "not good enough for the thousands of people living on the streets and dying on the streets with AIDS."
"This is another indication of the lack of interest of the administration," he said.