A long-time HIV/AIDS patient advocate is set to retire again from his volunteer work to protest a lack of support for his clients.
James Banko, 71, has for years been an outspoken critic of Interior Health over a perceived gap in services for Okanagan residents living with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.
Since he was diagnosed with HIV in the 1990s, he has volunteered as an advocate to help steer other patients through the system, but said his own patience has now worn thin.
“I’m officially retiring from doing my advocacy for the South Okanagan once and for all. And the reason for that is I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel for any future support system here,” said Banko.
He estimates there are about 20 people with HIV/AIDS in the South Okanagan, and as many as 200 more with Hepatitis C.
Banko’s concern lies in the support service work that Interior Health contracted out two years ago to the Penticton and District Community Resources Society. He said the contract places too much emphasis on harm reduction, as opposed to actual services, and that PDCRS staff does not have the time nor expertise needed to properly counsel patients.
“The people who’ve got HIV/AIDS are elusive, isolated, they don’t trust nobody. And that is very well known, because I went through the same thing myself back in the early 90s,” Banko said.
As a patient himself, he said he knows how to interpret others’ blood test results and deal with treatment side-effects: “I went though it, so I know every medication you can apply to remedy the severity of your side-effects.”
PDCRS did not respond to an interview request.
Banko said prior to 2011, the Living Positive Resource Centre in Kelowna regularly sent a case worker to support patients in the South Okanagan, but that assistance stopped when the group’s contract was scaled back by Interior Health.
Susan Brown, Interior Health’s community programs administrator for the South Okanagan, said Living Positive wasn’t doing its job.
“Our biggest concern was that it was not meeting the needs of clients down here,” she said, which is what led to the new, $50,000-a-year contract with PDCRS.
Brown maintained that the level of service available to HIV/AIDS patients in the region has not changed for at least five years. She said PDCRS is “working with clients on an ongoing basis,” and assisting with referrals to other support services.
As for Banko’s assertion that too much emphasis is placed on harm prevention versus actual supports, Brown said Interior Health has tried to find the right mix.
“We know that in looking at blood-borne infections that we need to have a balance in the services that we provide. We need to be looking at prevention, promotion and support right across that full continuum.”
Brown said she’s aware of Banko’s impending retirement, and despite not having a “formal relationship” with him, Interior Health does “share the same goals” as him around improving people’s lives.
Banko also announced his retirement from advocacy work in 2011. That drew a mention from former Penticton MLA Bill Barisoff, who wrote in a newspaper column at the time that Banko was a “tireless and passionate individual,” who “made a difference in the many lives he has touched.”