The Washington Post
Whitman-walker works to fill needs of the medically underserved in SE
With new facility, clinic hopes for ‘better equity’ and changed perceptions
Fifty years ago, the clinic that would become Whitman-walker Health cared for gay men underground, in a Georgetown church basement. Appointment reminders were delivered discreetly as services shifted to anonymous gray buildings that blended into the cityscape.
Today, the Southeast Washington location is a bright blue, green and pink house on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, reflecting how the nonprofit’s footprint has evolved to match progress in combating stigma toward LGBTQ people and patients with HIV.
And as construction crews put the finishing touches on the health center’s $30 million, seven-story, glass-encased home at the new Max Robinson Center a mile away, Whitman-walker leaders say they’re focused on expanding expertise built serving the LGBTQ community since the early 1970s to provide affirming, welcoming care to a medically underserved portion of the District.
“Building on our long history of service in Ward 8 and also recognizing that this is a historically un-invested-in community that has a fair amount of medical mistrust, we will be working a lot on our community engagement efforts,” said Whitman-walker CEO Naseema Shafi.
The new center on the St. Elizabeths East Campus, set to open in late summer, will offer more of the primary, behavioral health and dental care and pharmacy services available at the existing clinic, as well as increased services for young people and substance abuse treatment and recovery programs. Mammography and ultrasounds will also be available.
Whitman-walker takes private and public insurance such as Medicaid and Medicare and offers a sliding payment scale.
The 118,000-square-foot center and its 60 exam rooms, eight dental chairs and 12 behavioral health rooms will be funded by a combination of private donations, commercial financing and federal grants, Shafi said. The current Max Robinson Center has four exam rooms, two dental suites and four behavioral health rooms.
“We know we can fill those seats,” said Abby Fenton, who oversees external affairs and philanthropy at the Whitman-walker Foundation.
Whitman-walker officials hope the new center will turn around the perception that patients get better care at its Northwest Washington location, a building outfitted in modern finishings at 1525 14th St. whose neighbors include a Sotheby’s real estate office and an art gallery.
Of the nearly 17,000 patients seen by Whitman-walker providers last year, three-quarters went to 14th Street, while about 1 in 5 — 3,500 patients — went to the Max Robinson Center, said Rachel Mclaughlin, Whitman-walker’s vice president of population health and quality.
“We are looking to build better equity between the two sites that we have now,” Fenton said.
The new building sits in stark contrast to the well-loved and well-worn current center, which was retrofitted again and again since its opening in 1993 to accommodate evolving services and treatments. On a recent weekday afternoon, a ceiling tile was missing in the lobby, leaving wires exposed as visitors traversed a maze of hallways. Art decorates every corner of the homey but humble interior, where a handpainted silver turtle promoted support, insight and courage. A framed red-satin section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt celebrates
Max Robinson, the center’s namesake, who died of AIDS complications in 1988.
Whitman-walker’s embrace of Robinson — the first Black co-anchor of a national nightly television news broadcast — told Deborah Wells, a mother struggling to stay off heroin and manage liver damage and hepatitis C, all she needed to know about seeking treatment.
“The name itself tells you who they are. That takes the stigma out of your condition. That tells me all are welcome,” she said Tuesday while on her way to one of two jobs.
Wells, 65, is a 14-years-sober grandmother, great-grandmother, college graduate and advisory neighborhood commissioner who says her longtime WhitmanWalker physician treats her physical and social needs, including by providing nutrition guidance.
“The atmosphere is just totally different. They are welcoming, which a health facility should be to make you feel like going there,” she said.
The new center is part of the overall redevelopment of the St. Elizabeths East Campus, including the construction of Cedar Hill Regional Medical Center, GW Health, which city and healthcare leaders hope will begin to reverse stark racial disparities in health outcomes for Black residents east of the Anacostia River.
Life expectancy is as low as 69 years in Ward 8, compared with 83 or more in Wards 2 and 3 — a difference of 14 years, according to the D.C. Center for Policy, Planning and Evaluation.
Whitman-walker and other health-care organizations with a presence in Ward 8 consider it part of their responsibility to bring care to Southeast, where residents have felt the legacy of systemic racism in a lack of access to health care, but also in housing, employment, access to food and transportation.
Maranda Ward, assistant professor of clinical research and leadership at George Washington University, praised WhitmanWalker as one of the District’s most progressive health organizations, especially when it comes to LGBTQ needs, but emphasized the importance of serving new patients’ unique needs.
“Okay, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to transfer over one-to-one,” said Ward, who is the Ward 8 representative on the D.C. Commission on Health Equity. “Take the humility that came with that work and recognize when you don’t know something. It’s about literally partnering with groups at the forefront of this work.”
Shafi, the CEO, said Family Success Centers, DC Greens and Capital Area Food Bank refer clients to Whitman-walker for care and the organization hosts events at the Smithsonian in Anacostia and the Congress Heights Arts & Culture Center. The organization also works with the University of the District of Columbia and Howard University to rotate students through their clinics.
“We think it’s really important that the people who provide care look like the community we serve,” Shafi said, adding: “We would almost be irrelevant if we weren’t listening.”
The front windows of the clinic’s 14th Street location in Northwest display bright graphics declaring “Always proud,” and “Trans lives matter,” as well as a Black Lives Matter statement affirming that racism is a public health crisis and that police violence destroys communities.
“We have much to learn from our patients and our communities. We are determined to dismantle the systems of oppression and racism through the work we do,” the statement says.
Inside, Whitman-walker’s tagline “we see you” is echoed on a plaque reiterating the clinic’s 50year history of providing care “with patience, kindness, humility and as much empathy as humanly possible” — a message providers hope resonates for patients with every reason to be skeptical of the medical establishment.
In addition to specializing in LGBTQ health, Whitman-walker has always provided primary and dental care to anyone who needs it, and plans to expand those services to patients who may not be familiar with their care model, Shafi said.
Overall, 39 percent of the organization’s patients identify as gay or lesbian, 31 percent as heterosexual, 10 percent bisexual and the rest unknown or other. Less than a quarter of the care provided patients is Hiv-related, Whitman-walker data shows. White patients make up 42 percent of the clientele, compared with 39 percent Black or African American. About 20 percent of patients identify as Hispanic and 75 percent non-hispanic, data show.
About 70 percent of WhitmanWalker’s patients live in the District, and of those, 20 percent live in Wards 7 or 8. Fenton said officials hope to boost those numbers by 10,000 patients by 2025 with a simple message:
“We took care of your brother during the HIV epidemic. Why wouldn’t we take care of you?”