Whitman-Walker Health, D.C.’s preeminent community health center serving the LGBT community, is set to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its incorporation on Jan. 13, 1978 as the then Whitman-Walker Clinic.
Its current executive director, Don Blanchon, points out that the organization that became Whitman-Walker — the Gay Men’s VD Clinic, an arm of the then Washington Free Clinic — was founded in November 1973 and began operating in the basement of D.C.’s Georgetown Lutheran Church.
A timeline posted on Whitman-Walker’s website shows that the Gay Men’s VD Clinic, which began as an all-volunteer operation, hired its first full-time staff in 1976. In 1977, according to the Whitman-Walker history write-up, leaders of the fledgling clinic broke away from the Washington Free Clinic and began to develop “their vision for a new, diverse health care organization.”
At the time the group incorporated as Whitman-Walker Clinic in 1978 the D.C. Department of Human Resources provided it with $15,000 in funding, marking the first in a long history of city financial support for Whitman-Walker.
Blanchon, who did not become Whitman-Walker’s executive director until May 2006, said he has since learned from others familiar with its early years that its founders set a precedent for its mission and value system that remain in place today.
“At the end of the day, before there was ever HIV and AIDS, there was an ideal that the gay community needed a different type of health care that was affirming of who they were,” he said. “And that was all the way back to 1973.”
He notes that since then Whitman-Walker has broadened its health care work to cover the full diversity of the LGBT community, with greatly expanded programs and services for the transgender community in recent years.
Blanchon said today’s Whitman-Walker Health has an operating budget of nearly $103 million and a staff of 290 employees.
Although Whitman-Walker broke new ground in its first decade as an LGBT clinic, those familiar with its 40-year history say it established itself as one of the city’s most well-known healthcare institutions beginning in 1983, when the AIDS epidemic hit D.C. in full force.
Two years earlier, D.C. gay attorney Jim Graham was elected president of the Whitman-Walker board in 1981, the same year the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Report published an account of how young gay men were being stricken with a rare form of pneumonia normally contracted by elderly people with compromised immune systems.
The CDC report was the first of a series of updated reports that later identified the condition afflicting gay men and other population groups as HIV/AIDS. It was at that time that Whitman-Walker assumed a leadership role in addressing the epidemic in the District of Columbia.
Among other things, it launched an AIDS education program along with counseling and direct services for people with AIDS. A short time later it began its “Buddy” program that recruited scores of volunteers to help people living with AIDS at a time when little or no official government programs existed to take on that role.
On April 4, 1983, Whitman-Walker organized the first D.C. AIDS Forum at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. Hundreds of gay men turned out for the event and heard Dr. Richard DiGioia, a local physician whose practice catered to the gay community, talk about the disease’s symptoms and the early and mostly ineffective treatment options available at that time.
In 1984, the Whitman-Walker board named Jim Graham as the clinic’s new executive director. Graham has been credited with spearheading Whitman-Walker’s rapid growth as one of the nation’s leading AIDS service organizations.
During his first years at Whitman-Walker’s helm, Graham used his skills as a lawyer to provide legal help for gay men and others with AIDS who often were rejected by their families and faced workplace discrimination before becoming too sick to hold a job. Blanchon calls Graham the father of Whitman-Walker’s highly regarded Legal Services program, which currently enjoys legal support from attorneys with some of the city’s most prominent law firms.
Under Graham’s leadership, Whitman-Walker bought several buildings along or near the 14th Street, N.W. corridor north of downtown. Among the purchases were its headquarters at 1407 S Street, N.W., just off 14th Street. In 1985 the Robert N. Schwartz House was opened as the city’s first home for people with AIDS, becoming one in a series of houses Whitman-Walker purchased to house people with HIV/AIDS.
Most of the houses were financed by donations from the community and through bequests from gay men who died of AIDS and named Whitman-Walker in their wills.
As part of its continued expansion, Whitman-Walker opened facilities in Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, bought a building in Anacostia where it opened the Max Robinson Center, its first AIDS service facility located east of the Anacostia River.
In 1993, Whitman-Walker opened its Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center, named in honor of the famed actress turned AIDS activist, in another building it purchased at 14th and R Streets, N.W. The new facility received international press coverage when Taylor attended its opening ceremony that was carefully planned by Graham.
Graham resigned as executive director in January 1999 to take office as a member of the D.C. City Council, to which he was elected in November 1998. Around the time of his departure changes in the course of the AIDS epidemic began to take a financial toll on Whitman-Walker, according to those familiar with its operations at that time.
With scientific advances in anti-retroviral drugs that began to effectively curtail the virus in those who were infected, patients began to live longer and required more services for longer periods of time. The longstanding assumption that AIDS was a death sentence was replaced with the new world order that it had become a mostly non-fatal chronic disease.
While this was hailed as a wonderful development by Whitman-Walker’s large staff and vast network of programs and supporters, observers said it had an adverse impact on fundraising and other streams of income that the clinic and AIDS service group had relied upon for nearly 20 years.
As expenses for long-term treatment of patients increased, donations from the Whitman-Walker AIDS Walk, its largest single fundraising event, began to decline along with individual private donations. Some believed this was due in part to the assumption that the need to give money to AIDS causes was lessened due to the medical progress and improved treatments that stopped people from dying.
By 2005, Whitman-Walker faced its most serious financial crisis when news surfaced that it might not be able to make its payroll for the first time in its history. Part of the crisis stemmed from the dual developments of the city’s long bureaucratic delays in reimbursing health clinics, including Whitman-Walker, for health related services they provided for the city. At the same time, federal funds associated with the Ryan White CARE Act were curtailed or delayed.
The crisis prompted the board to close several programs, including its food bank and some of its sites in Virginia and Maryland. At the initiative of then-D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large), who was one of two gay Council members at the time, the D.C. government provided a one-time grant of $3.2 million to Whitman-Walker, a development that some observers believed helped it avoid having to shut its doors entirely and possibly declare bankruptcy.
In the midst of these developments, Whitman-Walker’s board in late 2005 adopted a series of changes and reforms to strengthen its financial viability, including a decision to change its structure from a mostly AIDS service organization to a community health center known officially as a Federally Qualified Health Center.
The new structure, which took effect in 2006, immediately enabled Whitman-Walker to accept far more private and government health insurance plans, decreasing its reliance and dependence on private donations and government funding.
In March 2006, the board announced it had hired Blanchon to become the new executive director beginning May 1. Blanchon had formerly served as CEO of a managed care health plan in Maryland and as vice president for Medicaid and Medicare programs for a medical management company.
Some in the LGBT community initially expressed concern that Blanchon, with the board’s full approval, would turn Whitman-Walker into a less community oriented “HMO” using profit-making techniques to undo Whitman-Walker’s longstanding role as a progressive, LGBT clinic. But others, including Blanchon, argued that the changes were needed to enable Whitman-Walker to continue its longstanding mission while becoming far more financially secure.
By March 2007, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) approved Whitman-Walker’s designation as a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), a status that enabled it to accept private insurance and Medicaid from the large number of the patients it had been treating.
“We’re blessed in the District of Columbia to have 98 or 99 percent of the population with some type of health insurance,” Blanchon told the Blade in an interview last week. “And so it would be foolish if not irresponsible for Whitman-Walker not to take health insurance,” he said.
“If 99 out of 100 people who walk through the door have some kind of coverage – CareFirst, Medicare, Medicaid — why would we say we shouldn’t take that?” he said. “That’s crazy. That’s not a good use of people’s money.”
Blanchon noted that the decision by the board to become a Federally Qualified Health Center requires that Whitman-Walker take in and provide services to all people in the community and the city, not just members of the LGBT community. But he said that requirement does not and has not changed Whitman-Walker’s mission of serving as an LGBTQ community health center that’s open to everyone.
In the years following the 2005-2006 changes, Whitman-Walker rebounded financially to a point in 2010 when it closed its fiscal year with a surplus for the first time in a decade. In 2012, one year after it changed its name to Whitman-Walker Health, it announced it finished its fiscal year in 2011 with another still larger surplus.
Today, Blanchon says that while Whitman-Walker Health is in good financial shape it still faces hurdles as circumstances in the city and in the nation continue to change. With the aim of remaining financially strong and to continue to expand its services to more people in the LGBT and broader community, Blanchon notes that Whitman-Walker in recent years entered into arrangements to acquire its new, expanded medical building at 1515 14th Street, N.W., which it leases, and to redevelop the Elizabeth Taylor Building through a partnership with a real estate developer.
The Taylor building site is currently being transformed into a large mixed use development, with space for Whitman-Walker along with residential apartments and retail and commercial space.
Blanchon points out that Whitman-Walker will remain the majority owner of the Taylor Building site while at the same time benefiting from the tremendous appreciation in its value brought about by the transformation of the 14th Street corridor in the years since Jim Graham helped orchestrate Whitman-Walker’s purchase of that building.
In addition to buying the building itself, Graham arranged a short time later for Whitman-Walker to buy two adjacent buildings and the land in the entire block on which the buildings were located.
While the benefit of the appreciation will help Whitman-Walker remain financially viable in the future, Blanchon said it has created what he says is a false image that Whitman-Walker no longer needs community donations and support because of “all this building we’re doing” between the Taylor Building project and the new leased building at 1515 14th Street, N.W.
“And the reality is nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. Among other things, Blanchon said income generated from the Taylor Building project will be used to expand and upgrade its presence east of the river in Anacostia. He said Whitman-Walker would soon be announcing plans for expanding the Max Robinson Center.
“So the board has made what I think is a really prudent decision,” he said. “This is completely a reinvestment of economic value…What we’re saying is this is analogous and it’s consistent with our values, which is we’ve benefited from something and we need to reinvest that in the next place where there is need.”
Abby Fenton, Whitman-Walker’s Chief External Affairs Officer, said Whitman-Walker would be announcing a series of events and activities scheduled for the coming months as part of an ongoing celebration of its anniversary, including an “anniversary gala” scheduled for Sept. 22.
Blanchon, meanwhile, said he was hopeful that the anniversary events will draw attention to Whitman-Walker’s future role in providing for healthcare needs of the LGBT community as well as its work in the past.
In discussing what he called the dark days of the AIDS epidemic Blanchon said people should never forget the role that Whitman-Walker’s many leaders, supporters, and volunteers played in responding to the epidemic.
“That is fundamentally one of the most compassionate and most human responses that you’ll ever see in the face of tragedy,” he said. “And it’s unbelievably powerful. It’s unbelievably emotive. It’s unbelievably sad and painful to so many of us.”
But while AIDS continues to be a serious problem facing D.C. and the nation, Blanchon said Whitman-Walker must adapt to the changes that have taken place over the past 20 years if it is to remain relevant to the community it serves.
“As poignant, as important as our community role was during the epidemic, with all due respect, we don’t live there now,” he said. “And that can’t solely define us anymore. We have to be defined by what the LGBTQ community needs from us now and in the future,” he continued. “And what are we willing to do with their continued support, financially, and their time, their talents? And it has to be about moving forward.”
Whitman-Walker’s 40th anniversary events
Whitman-Walker Health has released the following list of events it says it will hold this year between Jan. 20 and Oct. 27 to celebrate its 40th anniversary.
Jan. 20: 8-11 p.m. 40TH ANNIVERSARY DANCE PARTY – Dance party at Town to celebrate WWH’s birthday
Feb. 21: 8-10 a.m. MAX ROBINSON PANEL DISCUSSION – Join local journalists as they remember Max Robinson and also talk about their own careers as African-American reporters in D.C. The event will be held at the The Lincoln Theatre. Discussion will be moderated by Max Robinson’s former co-anchor Gordon Peterson. Panel will include Maureen Bunyan (confirmed).
May 23, 2018 GOING THE EXTRA MILE – Join us for our an annual cocktail reception at The Hamilton honoring our pro bono legal volunteers, recognizing our allies, and raising money to continue to provide free legal services to our underserved neighbors.
June 2, 2018 CAPITAL PRIDE WOMEN’S KICK-OFF PARTY at Big Chief with Mautner Project of Whitman-Walker Health
Sept. 22, 2018 40th ANNIVERSARY GALA Join us at the Marriott Marquis Hotel for our big event. An opening cocktail reception with passed hors d’oeuvres will kick off the evening. Following the reception, the gala will extend into a seated dinner and speaking program reflecting on our past, present and future.
Oct. 27, 2018 THE WALK TO END HIV Join us for our most important most fun fundraising event of the year. The Walk & 5K to End HIV is a fundraising walk and 5K timed run benefiting Whitman-Walker Health.