Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

AHF fails to gain approval to combine Castro pharmacy with health clinic

A notice for public hearing is taped to the window of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation clinic on 18th Street. Photo: Rick Gerharter

A notice for public hearing is taped to the window of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation clinic on 18th Street. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation failed to win approval this evening from the city’s Planning Commission to relocate its Castro pharmacy into the same building where its health clinic is in the gayborhood.

On 4-2 vote, a majority of the six commissioners signaled they were likely to disapprove the permit. But they postponed their vote to do so until their January 28 meeting in order to give AHF time to answer how they would activate the space other than as a pharmacy.

Gay commissioner Dennis Richards, who lives in the neighborhood, authored the motion. He noted he had visited the property and did not see much activity at either of AHF’s spaces.

“I live nearby and I never see people at either location,” he said. “Who are these places serving? I worry about creating another dead space.”

The permit had drawn significant neighborhood opposition to the Los Angeles-based agency, based largely on its policy stances against the widespread usage of PrEP as an HIV prevention tool and its support of a November ballot measure that would require the usage of condoms on all porn sets in California.

Yet in her report made public last week, planner Veronica Flores had recommended AHF be given the permit, noting doing so would not result in the displacement of an existing retailer nor increase the number of pharmacies in the area. She added that the pharmacy relocation “was desirable for, and compatible with” the neighborhood.

Commissioner Rich Hillis, however, said he would oppose the permit due to the lack of community support.

“What troubles me on this, we don’t see a lot of support from merchants and residents from this neighborhood,”said Hillis. “It is not an extremely active use.”

Both commissioners Kathrin Moore and Cindy Wu also voted against.

Two members of the oversight panel – Christine Johnson and Michael Antonini – said they would support AHF’s permit.

“It is combining a medical use and pharmacy. It is not increasing the number of formula retail, so it is just a relocation and now a collocation,” said Antonini. “This is a land use issue.”

He added that having the clinic and pharmacy in the same building “just makes sense.”

The vote today (Thursday, January 14) came after a prolonged battle between AHF and city planning officials over zoning rules in the Castro district. As the Bay Area Reporter has previously covered, the agency had filed a lawsuit against the city and gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents the Castro, due to AHF being told its pharmacy fell under the city’s formula retail rules – it has close to 40 pharmacies nationally – and required sign off from the planning commission.

City planning staff initially had granted the agency a permit in January of 2014 to relocate the pharmacy, which is currently on 18th Street, without any public review but then reversed course. Their reasoning was that AHF could not simply change the name from AHF Pharmacy to Castro Pharmacy to avoid triggering the rule that requires chain stores with more than 11 locations nationwide to seek a conditional use permit from the planning commission.

And Wiener sponsored legislation to ensure AHF and others could not use the naming loophole going forward. AHF appealed the rescinding of its permit to the city’s Board of Appeals, which last March ruled against it, and then announced it was putting its lawsuit on hold while it pursued approval for the permit.

AHF and its clients argued before the planning commission that the policy fights were immaterial to its pharmacy permit request and should be decided solely on the basis on whether it met the city’s land use rules. They contend having the pharmacy operating out of the street-facing portion of 518 Castro Street, where its health clinic has been in the rear of the retail space since the fall of 2014, is better for patients.

And they noted that its clinic is one of the few places in the Castro that treats women who are living with HIV or want to access HIV prevention services.

“The only thing that will change in this move is AHF will be able to offer better and higher quality services to its HIV positive and negative clients,” said Tom Myers, AHF’s chief of public affairs and general counsel.

(Glenn-Milo Santos, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the San Francisco Department of Public Health Substance Use Research Unit, had submitted a letter in support of AHF’s permit. But it was announced at the hearing that it had been rescinded because it did not reflect the viewpoint of the health department.)

Jesse Brooks, an advocacy consultant for AHF who is also a client at its Oakland clinic, which has a pharmacy onsite, said he knows first hand how important the convenience of having your doctor in the same building as your pharmacist, particularly when sick.

He said the politicization of AHF’s permit request for its Castro site had angered him.

“It makes me angry when I see who is here opposing it. People who should know how important this is far patients,” Brooks, 54, who is gay and HIV positive, told the Bay Area Reporter. “You oppose too many liquor stores in a neighborhood. You don’t oppose medical care.”

But others argued the pharmacy was not needed to be located on Castro Street and would do nothing to increase foot traffic to the 500 block of Castro Street. Others argued AHF should not be allowed to operate in the Castro due to its stances regarding a variety of HIV prevention issues.

AHF is “not desirable in the Castro,” said Dr. Peter Berman, a gay man who lives in the Castro. “Their ads in the Castro with ‘Do you trust him,?’ send the message gay men are lying, deceitful people. This is the wrong message to send about our community.”

San Francisco AIDS Foundation Senior Vice President James Loduca questioned how many clients AHF was serving at its clinic and suggested its real goal was to increase pharmacy sales that would come at the expense of other nonprofits located in the Castro.

(Earlier this month SFAF opened its brand new health center for gay and bisexual men called Strut, which includes a pharmacy, just a block away from AHF’s location.)

“There has been no evidence offered by AHF that it has any local clientele in the Castro,” he said. “We do know this represents a major profit opportunity for the Walmart of HIV care.”

— Matthew S. Bajko, January 14, 2016 @ 7:27 pm PST
Filed under: Uncategorized

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