THE Whitman-Walker Clinic, which provides valuable and important services to AIDS patients in this community, is facing a major insurance crisis that could force a drastic cutback in its services. The problem does not involve patients but the clinic's own employees, who can no longer get affordable health insurance. Last year at this time, health insurance premiums were increased 98 percent. In January there was a 76 percent rise, and on July 1, the premiums will go up another 50 percent. This means that the cost of providing health insurance to the clinic's employees will be $600 a month for individuals and $1,470 a month for families. It is expected that these costs will continue to rise.

The clinic's situation is unlike that of most ordinary businesses because many of its employees are gay and run a higher risk of contracting AIDS. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of the National Capital Region maintains that the cost of insuring Whitman-Walker employees far exceeds the premiums that have been collected. Because the group is relatively small -- there are 90 people on the payroll -- the risk is not spread over a large and more varied population in which most of the healthy participants in the plan could subsidize their co-workers in time of need. Clinic managers have taken steps to keep costs down, but these steps have not been enough.

The D.C. Council, aware of the value of the services provided by Whitman-Walker and knowing that if the clinic goes under these services will have to be replaced at public expense, is considering a variety of measures to help. Because the city contracts with the clinic to perform certain services -- these contracts amount to about $2 million a year of the clinic's $6 million budget -- the lawmakers' first step should be to increase the contracts to reflect some of this new overhead. They should also consider amending a city regulation that prevents Whitman-Walker and other nonprofit clinics from collecting from third-party payers such as private insurers, Medicare and Medicaid, when patients are entitled to that coverage.

The work done by Whitman-Walker's employees and its 1,500 volunteers is exemplary. The clinic provides not only medical services but counseling and testing, education, legal services, lab work, a dental clinic, a pharmacy, home health care and residences for AIDS patients. All this is done in the service of patients who are desperately ill and in many cases cut off from the support of family and friends. Clinic workers have helped so many. Now it is time for the community to help them.