A Fight Threatens an Institution Needed in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

DAVID A. CATANIA (I-At Large) of the D.C. Council is so angry about the perilous state of Whitman-Walker Clinic that he has embarked on a destructively aggressive campaign to oust its leadership. He has accused the agency of financial mismanagement. He alleges that it is getting away from its core constituency, the gay and lesbian community. There are legitimate questions about what's happening with the 31-year-old clinic. But the rhetorical fire raining down on the organization from Mr. Catania, chairman of the council's Health Committee, could undermine the very institution he says he's trying to save.

We understand Mr. Catania's passion for Whitman-Walker. The clinic, established in 1978, is an outgrowth of the Gay Men's STD Clinic that opened in 1973. The safe space and care provided by Whitman-Walker at the onset of the AIDS epidemic cemented its place as a vital institution, both medically and culturally, among gay men and lesbians. According to the clinic, it served more than 10,000 clients in 2008. Its budget for 2009 is more than $15 million. But the past few years have been challenging.

The faltering economy, decreased giving and a host of other problems have eroded Whitman-Walker's finances. It has had to lay off workers, discontinue services and close facilities in Maryland and Virginia. The financial troubles facing the clinic long preceded the arrival in 2006 of Chief Executive Donald Blanchon, the focus of Mr. Catania's ire. Whitman-Walker's lack of an internal financial structure has exacerbated its problems. After a three-year search, the clinic finally hired a permanent chief financial officer last month. A report done at the behest of the Whitman-Walker board by the law firm Arnold & Porter LLC recommended that the clinic "develop workable procedures and systems to ensure collection of accurate information about grants and contributions and the cost of raising such funds, with particular emphasis on prompt and accurate reporting." Given Whitman-Walker's stature, it is troubling that these systems are not already in place.

The clinic's efforts to branch out beyond serving gay men and lesbians are both an economic necessity and an appropriate response to the changing nature of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Three percent of the District's population is living with HIV/AIDS. African Americans, who make up 76 percent of the cases, are especially hard-hit: 6.5 percent of all black men and 2.6 percent of all black women have HIV/AIDS. Promising to serve as a primary-care health center open to all, while continuing to offer HIV/AIDS services, helps the clinic secure additional federal financial support. It also is the right thing to do.

Whitman-Walker was created by the gay community for the gay community, and it matured during the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic. But as the demographics of the disease have changed, so must the clinic, if it and the critical services it provides are to survive. Mr. Catania's efforts to hound out the person brought in to put Whitman-Walker on a more secure path only undermine the institution's stability. It took three years for the organization to find a chief financial officer who wasn't spooked by its shaky financial infrastructure. Imagine how long it would take to find a new chief executive willing to endure a torrent of abuse that distracts from the clinic's important mission.

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