Indiana city at heart of HIV outbreak to get HIV clinic

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A southern Indiana city that's the epicenter of an HIV outbreak tied to needle sharing among intravenous drug users is getting an HIV clinic that will provide free medical care to patients without health insurance.

Austin Mayor Douglas Campbell said the city of about 4,200 residents and its only physician, Dr. William Cooke, have entered into a partnership with the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation for the clinic, which will open within a few weeks.

Campbell said the foundation, which touts itself as the nation's largest nonprofit providers of HIV and AIDS medical care, brings "much needed help ... to those in need."

Most of the 150 people infected so far in the HIV outbreak that's the largest in Indiana history live in Austin, a Scott County city about 30 miles north of Louisville, Kentucky. State and local officials opened a command center there this spring that offers free HIV screening, drug treatment referrals and a needle-exchange program.

The new HIV clinic along Austin's main thoroughfare will share office space with Cooke's practice, and a pharmacy stocked with HIV medications will open following renovations to give patients privacy when they fill their prescriptions.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein said Friday the clinic will provide free treatment to patients who don't have health insurance or Medicaid or Medicare coverage. He said the foundation expects to tap into a federal AIDS drug assistance program to help the pharmacy provide patients with HIV treatments.

Austin's clinic will become the foundation's 44th HIV clinic in the U.S. and its first in a rural area.

The HIV outbreak centered in Scott County is tied largely to needle-sharing among people who injected a liquefied form of the painkiller Opana. Since December, the county has had 30 times the number of new HIV cases it would see in an entire year.

"It's quite unique. I've been involved with this for 28 years and I don't remember anything like this," Weinstein said of Indiana's outbreak.

The foundation, which says it performed nearly 156,000 free HIV tests in the U.S. last year, is facing a federal lawsuit in Florida alleging that it bilked Medicare and Medicaid in a $20 million scam that spanned 12 states.

Three former foundation managers filed that suit last month, alleging the foundation paid employees and patients kickbacks for patient referrals in an effort to boost funding from federal health programs. That suit alleges foundation employees were paid $100 bonuses for referring patients with positive test results to its clinics and pharmacies.

Weinstein said in a statement that small incentives for linking people to services and keeping them there are "mainstays of public health interventions." He said the AIDS Healthcare Foundation has done nothing wrong.

Weinstein noted that the federal government and state of Florida formally declined to intervene in the legal action, which he says "speaks volumes about the merits of the case."

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