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Addressing LGBTQ health

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A longtime area HIV/AIDS resource is expanding its mission to serve the full spectrum of health needs in the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community. Equitas Health, formerly AIDS Resource Center Ohio, announced its name change and broadened focus in early April. Since then, the not-for-profit organization has been holding “community conversations” across the state to raise awareness around its new mission and services. On Wednesday, May 18, Equitas Health representatives are coming to the Little Art Theatre. The event, which starts at 6 p.m., will also address the health needs and challenges in the LGBTQ community.

“We’re an emerging population,” said President and CEO Bill Hardy, who will be speaking at the event. “Folks are stepping forward, self-identifying as LGBTQ.” With the legalization of same-sex marriage, the community now includes many more families. But the health care system is not keeping pace, he added.

“Only a minority of medical schools address LGBTQ issues,” he said. And those that do may simply offer a “two-hour lecture on HIV/AIDS” — far from adequate coverage of the health needs of the diverse LGBTQ population.

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report, the LGBTQ community, while sharing many of the health concerns of the general population, experiences worse physical health due to unique challenges and barriers. These include discrimination and stigma, cost and workplace barriers, incompetent care and, in some cases, outright denial of care. The report also suggests that HIV/AIDS, mental health, substance abuse and relationship violence are issues of concern.

Hardy explained that Equitas Health’s new mission aims to fill those needs and gaps. The organization, founded in 1984, now has 13 offices in 10 locations around Ohio, including medical centers in Dayton and Columbus. The Dayton medical center, which also includes a full-service pharmacy, has been providing broad-based health care services to its HIV positive clients — beyond the crucial services of viral suppression and related case management — for two-and-a-half years.

Its “comprehensive, patient-centered approach” is working, said Hardy. “We’re achieving tremendous medical outcomes.” Viral suppression rates are at 80 percent among the organization’s patient population (compared to 30 percent nationwide), and research shows that people with HIV who are virally suppressed live close to normal lifespans, he said.

And so, with its name change, Equitas Health is now opening its doors to people who aren’t HIV positive. Its focus is on those who identify as LGBTQ (subsets of this community remain at risk for HIV infection), though anyone seeking a medical home could choose to be a patient.

AIDS still has a stigma, said Hardy, so the name change was necessary. “Taking AIDS off the front door allows us to cast a wider net,” he said.

Equitas Health will continue to offer HIV prevention, treatment and other services to HIV positive people within the broader context of comprehensive health care, an approach that has been shown to yield the best outcomes. But for those who are not HIV positive, the organization can provide all the medical, mental health, behavioral, pharmacy and other services people might need. And it does so, said Hardy, in a safe and accepting environment that’s free of stigma.

The need for such an environment — LGBTQ advocates refer to it as “culturally competent” care — is clear, said Amber Best, Equitas Health’s director of development, another speaker at next Wednesday’s event. In conjunction with Equitas Health’s rebranding, the organization launched HealthOutLoud, a series of unscripted videos from actual clients who reflect on their experiences, often shaming, with previous health care providers.

In one video, a young man named Zach relates how, upon telling his health care provider he was gay, he was automatically assigned HIV positive status. It was “the worst experience of my life in a health care setting,” he says on the video. In another video, a young woman, Amanda, describes her reluctance to follow up on abnormal test results after her health care provider called her lifestyle “inappropriate.” Her hesitation stretched to eight years, at which point she was diagnosed with a major tumor.

“As the patient testimonials show, not all providers are open,” Best said. “When people experience travesties like these, how do you make it right?”

Equitas Health hopes to make it right in part by raising awareness around its services. Hence the upcoming event in Yellow Springs, which local resident Julee Terilli helped organize and underwrite. Equitas Health’s message is a natural fit for Yellow Springs, she said. “This is an open, loving, accepting community.”

Other community collaborators include the Little Art, which is donating the space, Antioch College and the Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce.

Terilli added, “It’s just so important that people feel they have a loving health care home. I really want to help make people aware — there’s this resource for getting care.”

Brian Housh, who handles publicity for the Little Art, agreed. “Equitas Health resonates with our community, with being welcoming and treating people respectfully.” He’s personally been a supporter of AIDS Resource Center, and appreciates the organization’s expanded focus.

“As the [HealthOutLoud] vignettes show, there’s a need for this,” he said.

Best said the organization has some longtime supporters from Yellow Springs, and also already serves local residents. And Hardy pointed out that any college town needs to know that the “under 24 demographic” is especially at risk for new HIV infections, even as infections are declining overall.

But HIV, as critical as it remains, is no longer Equitas Health’s sole focus. Respectful, competent care for all members of the LGBTQ community, and anyone else seeking a medical home, is the health care provider’s new mission.

“We’re expanding our health care footprint,” said Hardy. “We’re so excited.”

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