The waiting rooms for a doctor’s visit on the third, fourth and fifth floors of Whitman-Walker Health’s new, six-story health center building at 1525 14th St., N.W. feature floor-to-ceiling windows, comfortable cushioned chairs and brightly colored carpeting.
With light streaming through the windows, the calming atmosphere in the waiting rooms is just one of the many new features that Whitman-Walker officials say the 43,000-square-foot facility will provide to enhance the mission of providing quality health care for the D.C. community, with a special outreach to the LGBT community and those with HIV.
“The new health center is designed around fundamental values of affirmation, vibrancy, dignity, and respect,” a statement released by Whitman-Walker says.
“We aim to improve the health of the communities we serve, expand program offerings to focus on our patients’ overall health outcomes and expand our community leadership role in LGBT health and HIV care in D.C.,” the statement says.
Whitman-Walker spokesperson Shawn Jain said the new health center was expected to open for patients on May 18, with a grand opening ceremony scheduled for June 4.
The current Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center used by Whitman-Walker, which is located on 14th Street less than two blocks from the new building, will be retained for administrative services and some programs, including the longstanding free STD clinic.
The new medical center, which Jain said Whitman-Walker officials refer to only as the “1525” building, is being rented under a 10-year lease from the Furiouso Development Company, which built the structure.
The total build-out costs for Whitman-Walker, which covered the interior structure and furnishings, came to $9.8 million, according to the Whitman-Walker statement.
“Whitman-Walker Health funded these costs through cash reserves, tenant improvement funds included in our lease, and some borrowing,” the statement says.
“Such a major capital investment is a multi-generational decision that will impact our patients for 20 or more years to come,” the statement adds.
As part of a major expansion of its programs, the new building includes 28 medical examination rooms, nine dental suites, an expanded pharmacy on the first floor and health and wellness suites and a large physical therapy room on the second floor.
The pharmacy, which takes up the entire first floor, will be open to the public and will provide same-day home delivery services for prescription medication, Jain said. He said it would also sell over-the-counter drugs.
The health and wellness facility will offer yoga classes and massage services. Also opening soon on the second floor will be a travel clinic that will provide vaccinations for those planning to travel abroad.
Floors three through five will include state-of-the-art medical examination rooms. Jain and Whitman-Walker community relations director Justin Goforth, who took a Blade reporter and photographer on a tour of the new building, said medical testing equipment used by doctors such as blood pressure measuring devices are linked directly to the center’s extensive electronic patient record system.
The two said Whitman-Walker retained an architectural and interior design firm to develop a setting on all floors to facilitate patient privacy as well as a patient-affirming atmosphere that minimizes the stigma that in the past has adversely impacted HIV patients.
They said the careful attention to the interior settings would be especially beneficial to patients of the mental health and addiction counseling programs, with most behavior therapy rooms having comfortable, cushioned seating and windows that allow natural light to illuminate the rooms.
The only patient areas without windows are the nine dental suites, which are located in the building’s basement level. To offset a lack of natural light, the interior design consultants took steps to provide cheerful furnishings and wall coverings that might be found in a home or apartment.
At Whitman-Walker’s request, the new building was designed as a “green” facility, with environmentally friendly materials and furnishings, according to Jain. Soil with growing grass has been placed on the roof and other outside spaces along the sides of the building.
All of the new building’s bathrooms are gender-neutral, single occupancy spaces, Jain said.
With the opening of the new building, Whitman-Walker has already increased its medical, dental and behavioral health provider staff along with customer service representatives and other support staff, Jain and Goforth said.
“Whitman-Walker Health ended 2014 with about 170 employees, the statement discussing the new building says. “We expect to have about 250 by the end of 2015.”
Similar to the Elizabeth Taylor Building, Whitman-Walker’s Max Robinson Center medical building in Anacostia will remain open, Jain said. He said the Metro Teen AIDS program, which was an independent organization that merged with Whitman-Walker Health last year, will for the time being continue operating at its offices on Capitol Hill near the Eastern Market Metro station.
Whitman-Walker Health, which was founded in 1978 as the Whitman-Walker Clinic, operates as it had at the time of its founding, as a non-profit organization with a special outreach to the LGBT community.
The following is a Q&A with Don Blanchon, executive director of Whitman-Walker Health.
Washington Blade: Why did Whitman-Walker decide to move ahead with this new building and what will be its significance on your ability to care for your patients?
Don Blanchon: For me it comes down to how particularly the metro D.C.’s LGBT communities are moving forward towards full equality. And Whitman-Walker has been a part of that movement for what – four decades now? And as those communities move forward so does Whitman-Walker’s role in caring for the people in those communities.
And so if you look at what we’re doing it’s a natural evolution to serve patients in a dignified, respectful and affirming way. And it makes for me so much sense to be able to provide the highest quality care to these communities who have been with us in some places for more than 30 years. It really kind of at the end of the day mirrors how the community is moving forward.
And if you look at our buildings over the years and you’ve seen what they looked like – we’ve been in renovated space and converted space and what have you. And now in 2015 we’re going to operate a modern facility designed specifically for patients’ health care needs specifically around the values of affirmation, vibrancy, dignity, and respect. But at the end of the day it really is the reflection of how we’re moving towards equality. And every person from every walk of life who comes through that new building is going to feel that they’re treated well and that they’re treated with dignity and respect. We believe that those are really important values for us to express.
And as you know, it’s more than just a building. It’s how we treat people and take care of people.
Blade: Can you say a little about what made this possible in terms of the financing? Was it due in large part to the organizational changes you made when you first became head of Whitman-Walker?
Blanchon: You’ve got the financial number in which the project is going to cost us roughly $9.8 million. And so there are really three buckets or pools of funding that have gone on to pay for the build out of the building. And the first bucket is cash reserves. We’ve had now five years in a row of operating surpluses at Whitman-Walker. So we were able to build up some cash reserves and be able to use those to pay for a portion of this. We had some tenant improvement funding in the long-term lease that we have.
Blade: Can you explain what tenant improvement funds are?
Blanchon: Conventionally when an organization signs a lease with the building owner often times the building owner will extend some tenant improvement dollars, which in effect allows the tenant to do some build out of the space…So this in effect is just another funding pool as part of our agreement with the owner on the lease.
And then the third area is we did some borrowing on the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center property, which has a good value in the community.
Blade: Was there a mortgage on that?
Blanchon: The building has been unencumbered in that it has no kind of debt on it prior to this project. So we basically had the property free and clear. And so what we did was some borrowing on that, and those three funding pools basically get us to what we need to do. And remember, we will move our health care team down to the new location at 1525. We’ll still have other programs – some health related, some administrative and support related here at the Elizabeth Taylor Center.
Blade: But the underlying actions that made it possible for you to have cash reserves and a budget surplus – wasn’t that some type of change in the model or structure of the organization?
Blanchon: Yes. We moved from what people called traditionally an AIDS service organization to a community health center model.
Blade: And that meant you can take health insurance and Medicaid?
Blanchon: We take health insurance. And again, this isn’t solely – I come back to this all the time. Whitman-Walker lives in a community that is constantly moving forward and changing. More of our patients, particularly those living with HIV, in the mid-2000s were becoming insured. They had Medicaid, they had Medicare. They had something else. So it just made kind of good sense for us to take insurance because we would be able to collect revenue for the care we were providing. And so the whole reason we made the switch from an AIDS service organization to a health center model was really because the practicalities of our patients were now insured.
And when I say that, Medicaid and Medicare are still the two largest insurers for us. So about 60 percent of our patients are insured either by Medicaid or Medicare.
Blade: So you’ve got a substantial number of seniors who are on Medicare?
Blanchon: It runs about 42 [percent] Medicaid, 18 [percent] Medicare and then about another 30 [percent] are commercially insured and the final 10 [percent] are self-paid and other categories. But a big chunk is Medicaid and Medicare. The next biggest chunk, obviously, is commercial.
Blade: By commercial do you mean private health insurance?
Blanchon: Private health insurance is the way you’d say it, yes. And so the change that actually got us the operating surplus was this model – the move from an AIDS service organization to a health center model. It allowed us to basically get another funding stream – obviously health insurance revenue, public and private, into Whitman-Walker. And by doing that we were able to shore up what we did.
And we were very thoughtful over the last three to five years on, OK, how do we want to do this? Where do we want to be located? And what’s the statement we’re trying to make to the community and to the patients we care for. And it’s really about trying to help people live happier and healthier lives and trying to treat them in a very affirming and dignified and respectful way.
Blade: What prompted you and the board to go with the arrangement you have in the 1525 14th Street site?
Blanchon: The really simple way to look at this is that in 2012, when our board thought through how we approach the fact that we’re growing – the number of patients we’re seeing is a growing number. And at some time we would have capacity issues at the Elizabeth Taylor Center site, which we knew we would have largely at the beginning of 2016 based on our analysis. So we faced this issue of do we build on the Elizabeth Taylor site, in which there was some patient and employee safety issues? We would be providing health care here and service here and would you really construct around it? That’s always a challenge.
And the other two options were to buy another site on the [14th Street] corridor or to lease space. We actually did look at another site but we were unable to reach an agreement with a developer on another site to buy outright. And then we ultimately elected to enter into a long-term lease with Georgio Furiouso. It was a thoughtful process.
And I come back to – you saw Martha’s Table and you saw Central Mission leave the corridor. This place is home for Whitman-Walker. The Dupont-Logan Circle area has been the center of gay life for 50 years in the District – 40 years in the District. And we felt really strongly that we needed to stay here. And we also know how accessible we are on 14th Street. We’re in between two Metro stops. We get Metro bus service. We’re just in a really accessible and vibrant place. We felt really strongly that we needed to kind of stay in the place that we call home.
And I can’t overstate that because clearly every non-profit and every group has the decision when they have real estate that they could sell their real estate and move somewhere else. We really felt strongly about staying here because this is what we call home. So many of our patients walk to this health center. It’s just a practical reality that our patients want to have access to us and this is a really accessible and in this case it’s going to be a beautiful new space for them.