By the time the AIDS epidemic exploded into American life, Dr. Beny Primm had already spent decades combating the health problems that plague urban communities. He’d been working with drug abusers at New York City’s Harlem Hospital since the early 1960s, watching as addiction corroded his patients’ bodies and lives.
“We had lots of cases of people getting shot and cut up,” he explains, “but most of the problems were related to substance abuse. We were doing all of this emergency surgery, but we weren’t treating the cause.”
In 1969, he decided to tackle the problem head on, and founded an organization dedicated to dealing with substance abuse and its side effects. Today, at age 73, Dr. Primm is still guiding the Addiction Research and Treatment Corporation, which has grown to encompass eight clinics serving over 3,000 clients in 10 New York City neighborhoods. Over the years, the ARTC has helped more than 30,000 New Yorkers overcome addiction and is one of America’s leading treatment programs. The outfit is widely recognized for its innovative treatment models, which offer a continuum of care for persons suffering multiple addictions in an environment of social and economic dislocation. In short, the non-profit ARTC lends a compassionate helping hand to some of the most disadvantaged people in one of the largest cities in the world.
Their objective is simple: assist patients in becoming independent, responsible citizens who lead meaningful and productive lives. In addition, ARTC’s Division of Medial Services, Evaluation and Research contributes to research in the fields of substance abuse, HIV/AIDS and other topics relevant to ARTC’s patients. And given the fact that most of the patients are urban minorities in the throes of addiction, to say that HIV/AIDS is relevant to ARTC is a monumental understatement. And something that Dr. Primm realized in the early days of the pandemic.
“I began to see patients in 1982 and ‘83 that had swollen glands throughout their body. I tried to get them to have a biopsy, which they wouldn’t,” he remembers. His patients, of course, were developing AIDS. “I began to follow the research very closely, and began lecturing about it. … And in 1985, when tests were available, I began to test people in my program.” He found that 65 percent of his patients were positive.
That makes dealing with addiction and HIV/AIDS a pas de deux for ARTC, which offers patients a wide variety of services in this urban war. A battery of physicians, physicians assistants, nurses and other healthcare personnel provide comprehensive medical services, including HIV testing and after-test counseling, HIV primary care and case management. ARTC is also a place where HIV-positive patients can obtain AIDS-related medications and nutritional guidance.
Regarded by many as the griot of Black and urban health care, Dr. Primm has seen a lot of battle in life. A military veteran who has fought his own lung cancer, he has counseled four U.S. presidents on substance abuse and public health issues. He’s advised the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, served as founding director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, and represented the nation before the World Health Organization. In all of this, he has seen nothing that scares him as does the AIDS epidemic.
“AIDS will devastate the population. AIDS is the most devastating problem for Blacks in this century. It’s comparable to slavery in terms of Black lives lost. And this happens as we are in the prime of our lives,” he bemoans, ticking off the still-growing infection rates among African Americans, numbers that he says should have long been common knowledge but still remain unknown to many in the community. “We are going to see a great deal more devastation in our community if we don’t begin to take heed to the messages that are being given. I don’t know what rock bottom is.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Primm’s in for the long haul. His latest campaign is to prompt the U.S. government to formally declare the epidemic among African Americans to be in a “state of emergency.” That effort began in 1998, and has already led to the creation of the Minority AIDS Initiative, through which Congress annually appropriates funds for prevention and treatment programs targeting communities of color. But a formal declaration of emergency would clear the way for still greater spending on the epidemic by making it a funding priority. Many observers hope Dr. Primm, who is influential in the Republican Party, will be a key resource in pushing the Bush administration forward on this and other AIDS policy issues. “I don’t expect things to get better with HIV or AIDS within the next two to three years. It’s going to take 10-15 years,” he predicts, shrugging off the commitment that may mean from him. “I have always dedicated my life to caring for people. I said that I don’t want to die with the music in me. I want to sing all of my songs.”