October 15, 1997
FDA has joined with several states to form the AIDS Health Fraud Task Force Network, a grassroots cooperative striving to curb AIDS fraud through various information programs. So far, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Texas have created task forces, each with its own programs tailored to the state's needs.
"Our hope is that eventually all 50 states will come aboard the program," says Richard Barnes, director of FDA's division of federal-state relations. Task forces include federal, state and local officials, along with members of AIDS service organizations, academia, businesses, and AIDS medication "buyers' clubs." FDA funds the task forces.
The 6-year-old task force network is not a law enforcement body, though it sometimes refers suspected fraud cases to state or federal regulators. Instead, the network seeks to abolish fraudulent activities by sponsoring consumer education through telephone hot lines, newsletters, public service announcements, exhibits, and videos. Because they regard AIDS fraud as common and costly for people with AIDS or infected with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), task force members help patients steer clear of fraudulent operations. Patients can report suspected fraud to task forces (the phone numbers are listed in local directories under state services). Task forces also help patients make informed choices about legitimate treatments.
A clear advantage of the task forces is speed, says Lynne Isaacs, AIDS coordinator in FDA's Florida district office. "If suspected fraud is found, the task force can rapidly alert the news media, which gets the message to the public."
One recent Florida case involved a hand lotion the distributor claimed could block HIV and eliminate the need for health workers to wear protective gloves. The task force quickly spread the word about this unproven product, and FDA sent a warning letter to the company, which resulted in the company canceling its advertising.
Collaborating with states makes good sense, Barnes says, because "FDA cannot stop AIDS fraud alone. Fraud happens at the local level, and that's where exposure of the fraud should take place."
Barnes emphasizes that AIDS fraud is not an isolated problem affecting a small patient population. It is part of a much larger problem that has negative consequences for the country's economy. "Let's face it," Barnes says, "when someone is involved in health fraud, it ends up costing all of us."
The current listing of task forces and contact people is located at http://www.fda.gov/oashi/aids/tfmems.html.