In December, Spider Davila begged a Los Angeles County employee for help.
“Can you let them know we’re out of condoms,” wrote Davila, who works for Community Health Project LA, which delivers condoms and other street health supplies. The group had turned to a provincial program that provides free condoms for distribution by businesses and community groups, but the emails went unanswered.
Sex workers “don’t get condoms during a syphilis crisis because I can’t even get an answer,” Davila wrote in an email. “Can you ask them to please, please, please write me back and get our condoms and lube?”
The December plea was just the latest from Community Health Project LA and other organizations relying on the county’s free condom program to stem the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis. increased during the pandemic.
The LA Condom Program is run by Audacy, an audio and entertainment company, under a district contract that pays $700,000 annually to buy condoms, pay salaries, and other program expenses. E-mails obtained by The Times through a public records request show that local organizations have complained over the past year about unanswered e-mails and condom orders being delayed by weeks or even months.
Audacity declined to comment. LA County Public Health said in a statement that during about a year and a half there were five cases that raised problems with the program, including technical and communication problems and problems with condom supplies.
When Audacy or the public health department became aware of these issues, “every effort was made to promptly assess, address, and resolve them,” and a number of changes were made to avoid gaps in condom availability , the department said. Several community groups told The Times they had seen marked improvements in recent weeks.
The provincial agreement with Audacy, formerly known as Entercom, was due to expire last summer. Instead, the public health department opted last June to extend it for another year.
The department said in a statement it had decided to do so to avoid service gaps because the bidding process could take 12 to 18 months and it had limited bandwidth during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program has already distributed more than 1 million condoms during that extension, surpassing its annual goal in seven months, the public health department said.
In interviews, some local nonprofits said they spent their own money to buy condoms after experiencing delays and unresponsiveness from the LA Condom Program in the past. “We wasted money that could be used for other necessities,” said Oscar Arellano, harm reduction program manager with the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System. He estimated that he spent hundreds of dollars a month on condoms that could otherwise be spent on sterile needles or other health supplies.
Every time an order is submitted, “I just feel like it’s a lost order,” Arellano said in an interview earlier this year. “I don’t know when it will arrive.”
At Community Health Project LA, Davila said in an interview that they were “grateful that the program exists at all.”
But when their supply ran out this winter, “we paid $700 for condoms out of pocket,” Davila said, “which is a real shame because that money should have gone to other things for our participants.”
Public health officials met with Audacy employees last March to discuss their concerns. In an email summarizing their discussion, Audacy representative Matthew Gall criticized recent global supply chain disruptions, including a Malaysian factory that was severely impacted by COVID-19, and a switchover in servers at Audacy that “temporarily shuts down communications.” disrupted,” which he said resolved.
Still, the complaints continued. In April, a representative from another LA County agency — the Department of Health Services — contacted the Department of Public Health after failing to get several orders for a COVID response team for those without homes. A public health worker told Audacy that “it seems like they’ve been trying to order since January with no luck.”
That same month, Community Health Project LA said more than three weeks had passed since an order was placed, and there was “less than one box” of condoms, emails show. In June, a Venice Family Clinic employee contacted the public health department and said the program’s website was down, and “I’ve been trying to reach LA Condoms for condoms for our program with no luck.”
Around the same time, another public health official expressed concern that a group serving sex workers had repeatedly signed up for the condom program but had heard nothing; it turned out that they were initially refused due to a misunderstanding. A public health official suggested that groups might be emailed if they were rejected.
In late August, Community Health Project LA said it had not received an order after nearly a month and had run out of condoms; Gall van Audacy said his condom supplier was behind schedule and undergoing staff changes, and that he offered the group some of their own supply of condoms to hold onto, emails show.
But a few months later, Davila again begged for a response after not hearing about an order, calling the program “so frustrating.” In December, when Davila filed his complaint, an LA County public health officer had had it.
“I can no longer in good conscience recommend this website to our partner organizations if this is the result,” an employee of the HIV and STI programs department wrote to her colleagues. “I thought we had a new supplier for this program and the problems were solved, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
“These organizations serve an incredibly high-risk population,” the employee wrote in an email. “We should do everything we can” to keep them stocked with condoms.
One of her colleagues responded that it seemed like most agencies got the condoms they asked for, but “there are still cases where it doesn’t work,” despite repeated encounters with Audacy. She suggested asking for a “formal plan of action” and raised the option of withholding payments — an idea quickly dismissed by an STD division manager.
Audacy was the only bidder to operate LA Condom when a solicitation opened in January 2019, according to the county public health department. The county said to improve the program, the HIV and STI division and Audacy had rolled out new features, including a new platform that notifies community groups at every step of the ordering process and allows Audacy to track information to ensure that packages are delivered. In January, Audacy began holding meetings with the condom vendor every two weeks to identify and address supply issues, the department said.
Audacy also hired an additional employee last July to help manage the program and reached an agreement in September with an alternate supplier in case the current one cannot meet demand, the public health department said. And it decided to approve larger orders for groups that use the program the most, so they’re less likely to run out.
“While we are proud that the LA Condom Campaign has distributed nearly 18 million free condoms over the past decade, we remain committed to further expanding the reach and responsiveness of this critical public health program,” the department said in a statement. declaration.
Community groups said things had improved in recent weeks: Davila said Community Health Project LA recently received a delivery of 30,000 condoms. Arellano said he had recently heard from a LA Condom rep who “responded within days.”
However, Venice Family Clinic was unable to count. The Common Ground program now buys its own condoms and spends about $2,500 a year on them because “it was easier than going through a program,” a clinic spokesman said.