Drug Money

Michael Petrelis, a San Francisco-based gay activist, has outed a numberof closeted gay conservatives and political figures during the past fewyears (most spectacularly in the case of former Rep. Steve Gunderson, whomPetrelis doused with a drink at a gay bar in Virginia). Now Petrelis anda colleague, Michael Lauro, are outing the huge salaries pulled down bythe heads of many non-profit AIDS organizations: $155,900 for James Loyceof AIDS Project Los Angeles, $148,000 for Pat Christen of the San FranciscoAIDS Foundation, and $141,521 for Jim Graham of the Whitman-Walker Clinicin Washington, DC.

Petrelis says such lavish compensation often comes at the cost of cuttingservices such as rental and medical subsidies for AIDS victims. Graham’ssalary at Whitman-Walker climbed to its current level from a base of $119,120in 1992. During that same period, the budget for the clinic’s program topay the utility bills of people with AIDS fell from $148,883 to $82,698.

It’s also ironic that much of the money spent by AIDS groups comes fromgrants made by pharmaceutical companies – who have profiteered mightilyoff people with AIDS. Burroughs-Wellcome (now Glaxo) made billions off AZTbefore finally lowering prices in response to protests by AIDS advocates.Yet prices for most AIDS drugs remain exorbitant today. Triple combinationdrug therapy, the most potent means of fighting full-blown AIDS, runs toabout $12,000 a year, with so-called protease inhibitors being especiallyexpensive. Average annual retail prices range from about $5,400 for Crixivan(marketed by Merck) to $6,900 for Fortovase (Roche) to $8,200 for Norvir(Abbott).

Meanwhile, pharmaceuticals comprise the most profitable legal industryin America, with profits four times above the average of the Fortune 500between 1988 and 1995. Protease manufacturers Merck, Roche and Abbott rackedup 1996 profits of $3.8 billion, $2.9 billion and $1.8 billion, respectively.A report by the Golden Gate chapter of ACT UP calls drug company profiteering”a number one killer of people with AIDS”.

Those same firms and other drug company profiteers are pumping moneyinto AIDS groups. To take just one example, the DC-based National Associationof People with AIDS receives funding from Merck, Glaxo, Roche, Bristol-MyersSquibb, Alza Pharmaceuticals and Optima Nutrition.

Some activists wonder if receipt of drug company money has dampened enthusiasmamong some AIDS organizations for taking on the issue of drug company pricegouging. For example, most AIDS groups-with the notable exception of AIDSAction-stood by last year as drug companies successfully lobbied Congressto kill a law that would have dramatically lowered the price that numerousheath care organizations pay for AIDS drugs. Stephen LeBlanc of ACT UP-GoldenGate-one of the few AIDS groups that does not take drug company money-isa veteran of MASSPIRG, a public interest group affiliated with Ralph Nader.”If people found out we were working so closely with chemical manufacturers- and being funded by them – it would have destroyed our credibility”.he says. “There’s no quid pro quo but there is no critical distancebetween the [AIDS] community and drug companies.”

Others believe that the drug companies, by funding and forming tacticalcoalitions with AIDS activists, have effectively co-opted many. Dennis DeLeon,president of the Latino Commission on AIDS in New York, fears that suchalliances “make people go soft in their willingness to confront industry.Some groups have such a symbiotic relationship with the companies that it’sbecome impossible to distinguish them from the companies’ policy and outreachdepartments.”. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.