Whitman-Walker's turnaround

Sunday, August 15, 2010

WHEN LAST WE wrote about the travails of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the future was not bright. Its finances were in shambles. Services had been discontinued. Facilities in Virginia and Maryland had been closed. Buildings were sold. And it was embroiled in a fight with City Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who was concerned that its financial stewardship was faltering and that the institution, established in 1978, was running away from its core constituency -- gay men and lesbians. That was the picture in May 2009. Fifteen months later, the health center -- which grew out of the Gay Men's STD Clinic, which opened in 1973 and remains a cultural hub for the gay community -- is showing strong signs of revival.

Whitman-Walker, which ran $4 million deficits in 2007 and 2008, is forecasting $18.5 million in revenue and a surplus of $360,000 when 2010 draws to a close. Money from third-party sources, such as Medicaid, Medicare and private insurance companies, has more than doubled, from $1.38 million in 2007 to $3.2 million in 2009. Even the AIDS Walk exceeded the organization's fundraising goal for 2009.

One decision that is helping to move Whitman-Walker from the red to the black is the move to become a community health center, providing everything from primary care to dental and mental health services regardless of HIV status. This gives the organization access to federal Medicaid dollars and positions it to take advantage of the expansion of Medicaid coverage that will come in 2014 as part of the health-care reform law. That means a lessened reliance on donor contributions, which have shrunk in the current recession. What this does not mean is a retreat from HIV/AIDS care. Of Whitman-Walker's 8,500 patients last year, 35 percent are HIV-positive. HIV-related medical visits accounted for 60 percent of the traffic through the clinic.

Chief Executive Donald Blanchon was hired by the Whitman-Walker board in 2006 to turn the struggling clinic around. Slowly, Mr. Blanchon has made the moves necessary to ensure that the doors stay open and that care continues to be dispensed to all who need it. "We're definitely going to survive," Mr. Blanchon told us. "Now, can we sustain it?" We are more confident than ever that the answer is yes.

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