No Answers After UNLV Suspends HIV Program

No Answers After UNLV Suspends HIV Program

By Aron Csiki | November 6th, 2017

UNLV has yet to provide answers as to why it suspended Southern Nevada’s only specialized maternal HIV program without warning to its patients and staff.


The Nevada Care Program, housed in UNLV’s School of Community Health Sciences, was abruptly suspended by Dean Shawn Gerstenberger on Sept. 15, unbeknownst to the 62 patients who relied on its maternal-child care and the staff working there.


On Oct. 26, a lawsuit was filed on behalf Las Vegas local Simona Johnson’s 4-year-old daughter, referred to as “Jane Doe” in the suit, to force UNLV to reopen the program. Shortly after, the director of the program, Dr. Echezona Ezeanolue, and his assistant, nurse practitioner Dina Patel, were placed on administrative leave.


Johnson’s daughter, like other patients who were in the program, is HIV positive and relied on the program for specialized treatment. The patients were relocated to other health care providers in the Valley, but some allege that the new providers are inadequate in caring for their needs.


The university said in a statement that it is conducting an internal audit of the program and examining its handling of federal grant money. UNLV President Len Jessup told the Review-Journal that there were “irregularities” in the way the program was using the money and Gerstenberger said that there were also issues with its memorandum of understanding with the university.


The statements were not elaborated on, and an exact reason for the program’s sudden end was not given. The university has refuted the accusations of the lawsuit saying they are unfounded and based on misinformation.


The Nevada Care Program


The Nevada Care Program specializes in mother-to-child HIV transmission and in providing treatment for such patients. The program started in 2006 and was originally part of the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine before being moved to UNLV in 2015.


In 2012, the NCP began receiving federal grant funding from the Health Resources and Services Administration under Part D of the Ryan White CARE Act. Congress designed the act to provide for low-income and underserved victims of AIDS who lack other means of treatment. Part D of the act specifically deals with funding for women and children with HIV and AIDS.


Ezeanolue started the NCP and brought Patel on to the program after receiving the grant.


Ezeanolue and Patel were first told that the program was being suspended because of issues with the MOU, according to the Review-Journal. There are no known previous issues with the program or with the practices of Ezeanolue and Patel.


Dead Ends


When retired attorney Elena Ledoux heard of the program’s suspension from a friend whose daughter also relies on its HIV treatment, she was shocked into action.


“I thought there must be some sort of mistake,” Ledoux said. “So I called the clinic, and they told me the same thing — ‘we don’t know what’s going on, [the providers] aren’t here and we have no information,’” Ledoux said.


“They told me to go my primary care physician, which is unacceptable because it’s HIV and a primary care physician doesn’t know how to treat it,” she said.


Ledoux spent the following days running around in search of answers, only to hit dead ends at every point. She told the Free Press that she had called Gerstenberger, Jessup, every member of Jessup’s cabinet and all the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents members to no avail.


“You have to understand, this is not something I normally do. I’m very calm,” Ledoux said. “I’m part of the establishment. I’ve never raised hell at all, this is the first time. But because my best friend looked at me and said ‘Is this all? Is this over for us? Is my daughter dead?’ I said, ‘No it’s not over.’”


After receiving no responses to her emails, Ledoux decided to go down to Jessup’s office where she was met by Vice President and Provost Diane Chase and School of Medicine Chief of Staff Maureen Schafer who had been awaiting her arrival.    

Ledoux said Chase and Schafer told her that the children would be taken care of and that they had a plan.


The plan turned out to be moving the patients to other facilities like the UMC Wellness Center, which took about five weeks to do from the time the NCP was suspended.


Ledoux described the Wellness Center — which treats mostly adults suffering from AIDS and HIV — as having horrible wait times, being a busy environment, being surrounded by homeless people and having providers who were severely undertrained or unknowledged in treating children and mothers with the disease.


“The university says ‘we’re taking care of these kids,’ what they mean by that is that they’re deferring them to regular [providers],” Ledoux said. “But it sounds good, so everyone thinks they did their job. Unbelievable.”


Ledoux said that her friend managed to secure medication for her daughter through their regular pediatrician who had been hesitant to prescribe it because they had never heard of the medication before and were uncomfortable attempting to treat the disease.


Ledoux met Simona Johnson and her 4-year-old daughter around this time. Ledoux said she encouraged Johnson and her friend to speak at the Oct. 19 Board of Regents meeting along with Ezeanolue and Patel.


The meeting, which was intended to be a regular workshop, turned into an intense set of testimonies and grievances during public comment that took some board members by surprise.


After the meeting, chairman Kevin Page told the Review-Journal he was surprised by the information and asked aloud, “Why is it so hard to communicate some of this stuff?” Page said he asked UNLV for a timeline and information on what had happened. As of print time, such information is still not publicly available.


The Lawsuit


Las Vegas attorney Jacob Hafter took on the case for Johnson’s daughter late last month. The lawsuit demands the immediate reopening of the NCP. It argues that UNLV cannot abruptly suspend a program that is funded completely by federal grants, and that the university abused its power with the decision to suspend the program.


Hafter strongly refuted UNLV’s claim that the grant money was being used irregularly, telling the Free Press, “Why would the providers themselves be in charge of handling the grant money? It makes no sense.”


The petition states as well that “neither Dr Ezeanolue, nor Dina Patel, have any control or oversight of financial expenditures” and the money is handled through the university.


Hafter further alleges that Gerstenberger engaged in discriminatory actions against Ezeanolue and said he believes Gerstenberger got “power hungry” when he dismissed the former director and Patel from their positions just a few days after the lawsuit was filed.


A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday Nov. 8.


UNLV’s Response


UNLV has not explained the issues leading to the suspension, but said in an Oct. 20 statement that an administrative audit associated with the grant money is being conducted and that the university “remain[s] committed to improving the health of all Nevadans, which includes creating and continuing programs that serve the most vulnerable in our community.”


It further says that a case manager is working with all the patients to transition them and “ensure continuity of care with providers who have experienced working with individuals living with HIV and AIDS.”


Following the filing of the lawsuit, UNLV issued a statement to the Review-Journal saying, “the lawsuit has no merit and is based on inaccuracies and misinformation, including the false premise that the clinic is closed and that care is not available to the plaintiff and other patients.”


The university did not respond to requests for comment from the Free Press.

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