MENTION THE FIGHT against AIDS in the Washington area and the name Whitman-Walker usually follows, and for good reasons. The mysterious disease -- later dubbed acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS -- began striking in 1980, affecting primarily gay men in large urban areas. But for years before that Whitman-Walker Clinic had been compassionately addressing the unmet health needs of gay men and lesbians. Relying primarily on private donations and volunteers, from 1973 to 1980 Whitman-Walker treated thousands of people who otherwise would have gone without health advice, counseling, screening and treatment. In 1980, a pivotal year, Whitman-Walker Clinic -- as today -- faced a life-threatening financial crisis. Twenty-five years ago, the clinic, making major, painful program and staff cuts, rebounded. Whitman-Walker, which served 7,000 people last year, has reached such a threshold again.
The clinic's announcement last week detailed the degree of its troubles: $2.5 million in program cuts; dropping programs in the Northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs; closing its residential program for the substance-addicted; closing its food bank, which distributed more than 5,700 bags of groceries in 2004; cutting back on dental care, prevention outreach and case management; laying off nearly one-fourth of its staff of 260. How Whitman-Walker, the region's oldest and largest provider of services for people with HIV, an organization with a $29 million budget, could have ended up unable to meet a $475,000 monthly payroll is almost as important as how Whitman-Walker will survive this crisis. Area residents are owed answers to both questions.
One explanation is common to most area service organizations: The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Donations after that date took a nosedive. The drop in philanthropy and the flatlining of federal grants did not, however, stop either the AIDS epidemic or people -- increasingly black, poor and female -- from turning to Whitman-Walker in rising numbers. Businesses losing money make balance sheet, inventory and workforce adjustments to improve the bottom line. A humanitarian institution such as Whitman-Walker, battling a disease that threatens a whole community, found it difficult to retrench. Instead it established a regionwide presence because of an apparent absence in the suburbs of services for people living with the AIDS virus and for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people faced with health problems and nowhere else to turn. It didn't help that the D.C. Health Department and the Prince George's County housing agency were deadbeats, owing Whitman-Walker more than $700,000 for services provided months earlier, according to The Post's Susan Levine.
Some of the program reductions and closures will be permanent. To survive, Whitman-Walker will soldier on with its core operations pretty much limited to the District. Greater generosity from local governments, philanthropic and civic groups, and individuals even now would limit the damage and allow the clinic to do more. CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield has proposed a gift of $500,000 to help keep Whitman-Walker Clinic afloat. Other pledges are welcome and needed.