HIV/AIDS Patients Seeking Options

Ali Villagomez, who is bilingual, administers HIV tests, with results in 20 minutes, and offers counseling as part of the services by the Suburban Maryland AIDS Reduction Team at Holy Redeemer.
Ali Villagomez, who is bilingual, administers HIV tests, with results in 20 minutes, and offers counseling as part of the services by the Suburban Maryland AIDS Reduction Team at Holy Redeemer. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Virgil Dickson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007

Among the things Solmar Gordillo loved about living in Silver Spring was its proximity to the Takoma Park Whitman-Walker Clinic.

As an HIV patient, he liked having a satellite clinic nearby where he could get the medication and other support he needed to live with the virus.

When the Takoma Park facility closed two years ago because of a lack of funding, Gordillo said, he was unable to find a similar one-stop shop that provided an array of services, including bilingual staff members.

So Gordillo, 31, not wanting to fall behind in his treatment, went to the main Whitman-Walker Clinic in the District. "I couldn't let myself go," said Gordillo, a native of Colombia who moved to the United States six years ago.

Gordillo is among hundreds of suburban Maryland residents living with HIV/AIDS who were forced to look elsewhere for treatment and support after the Takoma Park clinic closed. Some residents have found help at their local health departments or with advocacy, outreach and other social services programs.

Others, including many from Prince George's and Montgomery counties, have turned to the Whitman-Walker Clinic in the District -- a hike for a sick patient.

"I feel so hurt for them, because I know clients in D.C., and it's working out for them," said Yvette Lindsey, a consumer advocate in Maryland for Ryan White services, a federal government program that allocates funds to states for HIV prevention and care.

Lindsey said she often hears complaints from people in Prince George's and Montgomery with HIV/AIDS about trouble getting medical and dental care and social services not typically offered in a doctor's office. When they ask her where to go, Lindsey said she asks them whether they are open to moving to the District.

Erin Bradley, a spokeswoman for the Prince George's County Health Department, said there are options for HIV/AIDS patients who live in suburban Maryland. She said funds that once went to the Takoma Park clinic have been dispersed to other social agencies offering such services as transportation to medical appointments, emergency food vouchers, and mental health, nutrition and substance abuse counseling.

Andrew Spieldenner, director of programs for the National Association of People with AIDS, a nonprofit organization based in Silver Spring, thinks otherwise. He said patients are inconvenienced and denied access, pointing out that they have to go to several locations for what they used to get at one place.

As a result, HIV/AIDS activists said, patients are forced to piece together their treatment, which can include filling prescriptions and finding someone to manage their cases, emergency food vouchers and mental health and nutrition counseling.

In Prince George's, there were 2,370 people with HIV and 2,266 with AIDS as of 2006, according to the Maryland AIDS Administration, a division of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In Montgomery, there were 1,170 people with HIV and 1197 with AIDS, according to the agency.

The Whitman-Walker Clinic in the District serves more than 1,900 patients from suburban Maryland, most of them from Prince George's and Montgomery, spokesman Chip Lewis said. Before the Takoma Park site closed, the District clinic had about 1,200 patients from suburban Maryland.

Then there are the people seeking to find out whether they are infected with the virus.

When Whitman-Walker shut its doors in Takoma Park, the Suburban Maryland AIDS Reduction Team, which performs confidential HIV screening, had to find a new place to do its testing. The program now offers its free testing on Wednesdays at Holy Redeemer Metropolitan Community Church in College Park.

The Rev. David North, who is HIV positive, said he was thrilled to offer HIV testing at his church but was disappointed that a lack of funding would prohibit testing for other sexually transmitted diseases, a service the Aids Reduction Team performed at the Takoma Park clinic.

"Few people think they have HIV right off," North said. "Many people find out they have HIV after coming to be tested for other sexually transmitted diseases."

Colin Flynn, chief of surveillance and epidemiology at the Maryland AIDS Administration, agreed. "If you are offering people a variety of services, with HIV being just one of them, you are more likely to get more people in," Flynn said.

The AIDS Reduction Team also goes to the Montgomery County Health Department on Tuesdays and Thursdays to perform testing. In addition, team members operate a van in Prince George's on Fridays, offering free tests.

"We may not be able to do all the things we used to, but we are still here and we're trying," said James Coleman, program director of the AIDS Reduction Team. "The bottom line is that we just want people to get tested."

Gordillo, who works as an HIV/AIDS advocate at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Arlington, said he is satisfied with the services he has been receiving at the District location for two years and doesn't want to change doctors.

"If I have to go somewhere else, it doesn't matter as long as I can take care of myself," he said. "If you want to have quality services, go to D.C."

North said he hopes the closing of the Takoma Park clinic does not deter people from seeking the treatment and support they need. He said he is particularly hopeful that people who think they might be infected get tested.

"A lot of people that ought to be served and rescued are not," North said. "I need them to hang on and hope that people will at least be able to take advantage of free testing."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company