AIDS Alternative Health Project clients hoping to make an appointment with agency staff last week instead received a shocking and heartbreaking electronic message: "We are sorry to inform you that the clinic will be permanently closed as of Jan. 31 ... . Good luck to you all."
Citing financial problems that they don't expect to overcome, the board of directors of Alternative Health Partners officially announced the closing on Monday.
"After years of operating through difficult financial times, the recent convergence of unfortunate events contributed to the agency's inability to obtain adequate funds," the board said in a release. "These included: expected revenue from community events that was not received, the dissolution of a partnership agreement with Ravenswood Hospital, several years of increasing costs to provide services, decreased individual giving and lower participation in HIV/AIDS-related fundraising activities."
The surprise announcement, first made after a board meeting last Wednesday, has left the agency's staff and approximately 950 clients shocked and saddened.
"We're all very sad," said Vicky DiProva, who joined the agency last May to take over its psychological health services. "We worked very hard to keep this from happening."
"I can't tell you how heartbreaking this is," said AHP board member Terri Gendel. "But it isn't a scandal, it's just something that failed."
Several clients first learned of the closing after waiting outside Wednesday's board meeting, which they were not allowed to attend.
Three board members stayed after to answer their questions, they said, but the suddenness of the announcement and board members unwillingness to divulge many specifics has many of them suspicious.
"They're not answering anybody's questions," said client Mark Inskeep, who has been a vocal critic of the agency's management. "We wonder what's going on and how did this happen."
To answer some of those questions, board members have arranged for a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 1, at the agency's Uptown Clinic, 4753 N. Broadway, Suite 1118.
DiProva said the agency's debt is "approaching a couple hundred thousand," but more details were not made available.
Uptown National Bank would also not verify rumors that the agency owes thousands in back rent.
The closing affects AHP's HIV and non-HIV clinics, including its satellite offices at the CORE Center of Cook County Hospital, Provident Hospital, Bethany Hospital and Sisters of Sobriety.
AHP began as AIDS Alternative Health Project 15 years ago to serve HIV-positive clients. In 1997, it changed its name to Alternative Health Partners and expanded its focus to include all chronic illnesses and the people they affect. Services included chiropractic care, acupuncture, massage, nutritional counseling and mental healthcare.
"We fully acknowledge that this leaves a hole, a big hole," DiProva said. "We have been on the phone with clients, working out arrangements with other providers to become the keeper of our medical records."
Both DiProva and Gendel implored other agencies to welcome AHP's former clients. DiProva noted that all clients are required to have primary care physicians, making AHP's services complementary to their main care.
But clients said they felt many of the services they received were one-of-a-kind.
"I felt that AHP was a very good center to go to because of the multi-faceted assistance that was available," said client George Martinez. "It's a great loss for Chicago, it's a great loss for the people it's going to hurt—people who depended on this alternative health clinic."
However, the organization AIDS Care is making clear that its staff is willing to pick up where AHP left off.
"We do complementary therapies for people with HIV and AIDS as well," said Tim Sandberg, director of the wellness center at AIDS Care. "They ( clients ) don't have to cease their services."
Saying, "we're geared up and ready," Sandberg noted that his agency offers many of the same services as AHP.
"Our services, in many ways, are identical," he said, adding that clients should call him at AIDS Care if they have questions about their care, at ( 773 ) 935-4663, ext. 135.
Rumors about AHP's financial status have spread rapidly among the clients, many of whom wanted to know, first and foremost, whose fault the situation is.
But, Gendel said, "I don't think it's very easy to assign fault."
Many clients interviewed by WCT pointed fingers, namely at former AAHP Executive Director Mike Brickman, who stepped down from his post for health reasons in December.
But board members defended Brickman's tenure, and Brickman himself said he was unaware of the agency's dire status.
"It seems kind of hard to believe things are unraveling so rapidly," he said late last week. "It didn't seem to be in that shape when I left."
He expressed dismay and disappointment that years of work and progress that began in a basement on Sheffield had managed, in his eyes, to come apart in five weeks time.
Clients of the agency said they had indications as early as last summer that things were amiss, including high staff turnover, a sudden increase in fees and a temporary closing in July.
Martinez said he knew something was wrong when, after several months of receiving agency services, his insurance company had not yet been billed.
"That was the first indication that something's not going on right here," he said.
By making only vague mention of "community events" that did not generate the expected revenue, AHP board members sidestepped placing any blame on the embattled AIDS Walk Chicago, which is not expected to pay out any money to beneficiaries—including AHP—this year.
Sources did, however, point to the difficulties experienced by the Walk as an example of the hardships currently faced by AIDS organizations.
Gendel acknowledged that the agency has had its ups and downs but said board members hoped, until the last minute, that a financial solution could be reached.
Now, she said, she hopes people will focus on the agency's accomplishments, "the work that got done and the people who were cared about."
AIDS Care can be reached at ( 773 ) 935-4663.