Equitas Health offers ‘welcoming home’ for medical care

A new-to-Cincinnati nonprofit community healthcare system wants to create a “welcoming home” for patient-centered medical care for the LGBTQ+ community and beyond.

“Our mission is to meet the medical needs of medically underserved communities,” said Bill Hardy, president and CEO of Equitas Health, which opened its Walnut Hills medical center just over a year ago.

Hardy and Jose Rodriguez, director of community relations, describe Equitas’ integrated care approach as a “patient-centric medical home.”

“We put the patient in the middle and provide all these tools to help improve their health or keep them in good health,” Rodriguez said. “We provide you with the primary care, the specialty care, the behavioral health/psychiatric care or wellness.

Then you step over to the pharmacy and we provide you with the medications you need to stay well.” Equitas counts itself as one of the largest U.S. healthcare providers for the LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS communities. “We also do a lot of work with other marginalized communities, addressing their inherent health disparities,” Rodriguez said. For example, Equitas recently
received a grant to address HIV infections related to opioid drug use and for work toward preventing HIV infections in people of color in Cincinnati, Rodriguez reported. He noted both groups are disproportionately affected by HIV.

Additionally, as a federally qualified Community Health Center, “our commitment is to the neighborhoods we serve,” Rodriguez said. Walnut Hills was a strategic choice in that regard, Rodriguez said, because it was a healthcare and pharmacy “desert.” And the existing 10,000-square-foot facility Equitas renovated boasted critical ease of access – “The bus literally stops right at the front door,” Hardy said. “We believe health care is not a privilege; we believe it’s a human right,” Hardy added. “We will turn no one away on inability to pay.”

All in good timing

Equitas operated two medical centers in Columbus and one in Dayton before opening in Cincinnati in March 2020. That was about a week before state-mandated COVID-19 shutdowns.

“We were ready to move immediately and start seeing patients online,” Rodriguez said.

When COVID-19 vaccines became available, Equitas was the only vaccine provider in Walnut Hills, Rodriguez said. Hardy said they have administered 1,110 vaccines.

As a Greater Cincinnati resident for nearly four decades, Hardy is excited to have a presence here and has been “thrilled” with the response. In its first year, the Walnut Hills center has seen more than 1,700 patients at some 5,300 appointments, and it continues to see 50 to 75 new patients per month, he said. Richard Cooke is one of those patients.

“I was really impressed with their approach to health and services to the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “I just love their inherent inclusivity. It’s just so natural; I just don’t have to worry about talking about my husband or my sexual health needs.”

Cooke is advocate

Not only did he move most of his healthcare to Equitas, but he also talks to others about its services. Through e19 Lounge Bar and Discotheque, the gay bar Cooke
and his husband opened in Overthe-Rhine last October, he’s forged a strategic partnership with Equitas. It includes promoting the nonprofit through advertising materials, coasters and video screen displays.

“The LGBTQ+ community is a huge spectrum of different people with different needs,” Cooke said. “As gay white men … if it’s hard for us, think about how hard it is for a Black trans woman seeking care.

“I really think the services they are offering (at Equitas) are transformational and are saving and improving lives,” he added. “It is that profound.”

From ‘dark days’

Equitas grew out of multiple AIDS service organizations (ASOs) during the early days of HIV.

Back then, the goal was “helping people live as well as they could for as long as they could,” Rodriguez said.

Hardy became part of that mission in 1993 when he went to work for AIDS Foundation Miami Valley in Dayton.

“An AIDS diagnosis in the early ‘90s was a death sentence,” he said. “Those were dark, dark days.”

Things have changed, both for the disease and his organization. AIDS Foundation Miami Valley merged with other organizations and became AIDS Resource Center Ohio. As better HIV treatments became available, such organizations “were changing their focus from helping people die to helping people live,” Rodriguez said.

In 2016, the center rebranded as Equitas Health and expanded to offer primary care for the LGBTQ+ community and others who are medically underserved.

A branch called Equitas Health  Institute provides cultural competence training and education – Rodriguez cited the importance of using the right pronouns as an example – for organizations ranging from academia to corporations.

Meanwhile, the organization has grown from a staff of four and a budget of $200,000 back when Hardy started in 1993 to more than 520 staff members and a $100 million budget today.

But it’s not about budget or buildings, Hardy said. It’s about the progress from those “dark days.”

Equitas currently serves some 7,000 HIV-positive patients across Ohio. Hardy said the organization’s viral suppression rate exceeds 90 percent, compared with the CDClisted national viral suppression rate of 65 percent.

“If you’re virally suppressed, you can live a normal lifespan, and you can’t transmit the virus,” he said. “These are the things we were just dreaming about 30 and 40 years ago… We really have made extraordinary progress.”

That progress has even produced PrEP, a pill that prevents HIV infection in those who take it and another of Equitas’ offerings.

For Hardy, who is gay and has seen the disease’s impact on that community, Equitas’ work is personal. Doing something to help fits his moral code.

“My personal philosophy is that while we’re on earth, we have an ethical obligation to make it a better place,” he said. “There are victories that we can win, one person at a time, one day at a time.”

 www.equitashealth.com

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