Pink-Pong: Catania and Whitman-Walker go back and forth over clinic firings.
Pink-Pong: Catania and Whitman-Walker go back and forth over clinic firings. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Captains of American industry this week announced the slashing of some 70,000 jobs. The announcements were met with a large, sympathetic sigh. In these times, after all, everyone understands there’s no way around budget cuts.

The Whitman-Walker Clinic—the Logan Circle–based health center that made its reputation in the ’80s treating victims of the AIDS epidemic—did its slashing before this latest wave of pink slips: Shortly before Christmas, two money-losing facilities and 36 employees were axed in the face of stagnant private donations and widespread government budget deficits.

Just something you have to accept, right? Not for At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania.

Catania, the chair of the council’s health committee, is doing his bulldog act on the clinic, which is joining the likes of pharmaceutical companies, managed care organizations, and Natwar Gandhi on his personal shit list. On Wednesday (after LL’s deadline), Catania held a hearing to grill WWC leadership on how the hell their clinic ended up looking like a nonprofit version of Home Depot.

Ahead of the hearing, Catania, as usual, was not shy about doling out criticism: “It seems like this clinic is trying to grow through subtraction. And that’s not the way it works—you grow through addition,” he says. “I don’t see a real plan of growth and success. I see a series of stopgap measures and staff reductions and closures, all of which do not add up to a successful operation.”

Fair concerns, sure—especially for Whitman-Walker, which has always cut a larger swath politically than its size or client count might warrant. For one thing, that’s due to its status as a symbol in the fight against HIV/AIDS in this town and its historic role serving the city’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. And then there’s Jim Graham—the hyperactive Ward 1 councilmember and former clinic executive director, a man who established WWC as a big-time player in local politics.

Graham and successor Cornelius Baker were always careful to keep Whitman-Walker fresh on the minds of D.C.’s power brokers, whether it was through a donation, a well-timed office visit, or throwing a must-attend benefit event. In 2006, the clinic hired Don Blanchon to follow in their footsteps. A guy with a background in corporate health care, Blanchon is an affable, easygoing fellow, but he hasn’t taken quite so easily to the politicking—or at least to the favor-currying.

The next time Blanchon takes a tough look at his staff members, he may want to consider how they’re wired on Pennsylvania Avenue. Among the 36 cashiered without severance in December were several of the clinic’s longest-tenured staff, including Patricia Hawkins, a psychologist who had been associated with WWC in various capacities since 1984, most recently as director of external affairs.

Hawkins’ firing—along with that of Barbara Chinn, head of the clinic’s Anacostia outpost—is by some accounts what truly raised Catania’s ire. Hawkins is someone who had been key in maintaining good relations with local politicos, and Catania reportedly raised Hawkins’ termination repeatedly in private conversations with Blanchon.

Catania admits that the circumstances of the firings upset him, calling them “absolutely offensive.” Hawkins, he says, “is someone I believe deserved more than less than two weeks’ notice after two decades of service.…I don’t think any of us would begrudge the clinic making tough decisions. What leaves a bitter taste in our mouth is the way in which it was done, period.”

Says Blanchon, “This is not about any particular individual….The sole reason for the layoffs was to keep the clinic open.” The mantra during the cutbacks, he says, was “first, do no harm.” Managers who weren’t directly administering medical care, he says, were considered first.

But Catania says his concerns about the clinic’s operations go deeper than the firing of a friend: “It’s to diminish the seriousness of the situation to say that it’s because anyone is upset with the way Pat or Barbara were treated.”

The situation is serious enough that Graham, who has largely kept out of clinic affairs as councilmember, now feels he has “sufficient distance” from WWC to get involved in Catania’s hearing. He, too, is concerned about the firings: “I hired all those people. I thought they were extremely able. The fact that all of them have been let go is a matter of concern to me.”

Even during Graham’s 15-year tenure, what’s considered the clinic’s heyday, making ends meet was never a sure thing. And after the rainmaker jumped to the council, things got even tighter. In 2005, for example, “fiscal difficulties” turned into a “fiscal meltdown,” with the clinic unable to make payroll that spring. D.C. Council hearings were held; the city and private donors stepped in with emergency funding, and the clinic’s board decided Whitman-Walker needed to be less about social services for the GLBT community and more about delivering medical care to HIV/AIDS patients. It hired Blanchon to make that happen.

The board decided at the time to become what’s called a “federally qualified health center” (FQHC)—a governmental term of art meaning that WWC’s funding model changed. Rather than relying almost entirely on private support and government block grant funding, the clinic increasingly started billing public and private insurers for care it had delivered.

These days, by one measure, Whitman-Walker is doing better than ever: It’s treating the most patients it ever has. In 2005, when the first fiscal crisis hit, the clinic had 6,900 clients. Today, it treats more than 10,000.

But the fiscal situation has continued to degenerate, thanks to declining donations, stagnant federal funding, and low reimbursement rates from insurers. Last January, the board slashed jobs as part of a restructuring, then, later that year, announced it would sell the clinic’s administrative building at 14th and S Streets NW in order to pay off debt.

The building sale didn’t solve the clinic’s cash problems. Things were looking OK through the summer, Blanchon says, as fundraising began for the annual AIDS Walk held in early October.

“Then the economy tanked,” Blanchon says. “It was as if our entire AIDS Walk efforts just slammed up right against the wall. By mid-November, we realized we were not going to have enough cash to start the next year.” Private donations ended up declining nearly 30 percent in 2008 against the year prior.

The board met on Dec. 17 and voted to close the clinic’s Northern Virginia outpost and an eight-bed inpatient addiction-recovery facility in Petworth. Those closures, as well as the administrative layoffs, were announced the next day. “We basically said, We aren’t going to be able to fund our way out of this,” Blanchon says. “However, we’re going to protect our core medical services.”

Catania says, au contraire, that the clinic should have found a way to fund its way out of it. For one thing, he says, the clinic’s decision to become a FQHC means it should be eligible for special government reimbursements. “We can find no evidence that they’ve actually sought that money,” he says. “They keep saying, ‘Well, we’re gonna do it.’ Well, for crying out loud, why did you become an FQHC before you had adequate cost reports to seek full reimbursements? You’ve expanded your mission without the resources which are available to do your job, then you deal with it by cutting yourself to the bone [and] at the same time eviscerate the identity that many of us had associated with that clinic.”

That last point—about the clinic’s identity—is a touchy one. Blanchon denies any sort of degayification is afoot. But most of the clinic’s clients don’t identify as gay or lesbian, and the rounds of layoffs have reduced GLBT numbers in the clinic’s workforce.

“If they no longer want to be a GLBT-centric clinic, that is of course the right of the clinic and the board to make that decision, but they can’t have it both ways. They can’t be a GLBT clinic when it serves them for fundraising purposes and then not [be one] in reality,” Catania says. “What they’re becoming is a generic garden-variety clinic….They can’t be Whitman-Walker of 1985 when it suits them one day and Whitman-Walker of 2009 every other day of the week.”

In fact, Catania ponders whether Whitman-Walker Clinic is worth preserving as it’s now configured. Perhaps, he says, the clinic is better off being absorbed by a larger clinic: “If it’s not going to fulfill a niche market, why have all that overhead for the existing operation? Why pay Don Blanchon $190,000-plus a year to manage a clinic and a half?”

The next WWC program to be cut, Catania fears, is the Max Robinson Center—the Anacostia outpost that Chinn used to oversee. That facility is widely considered to be invaluable in addressing the HIV scourge ravaging the District’s black community, and Catania says it looks to be “next on the list” for axing.

Blanchon says there is “no intention” of shuttering Max Robinson and that the clinic is “unequivocally committed to providing service to residents east of the river.”

Clearly shaken by the full-on Catania rage-o-rama, Blanchon stands by his management of the clinic’s fiscal problems, saying that the recent cuts have prepared the clinic for whatever is ahead. “I think with the actions we’ve taken, we can weather the economic storm,” he says. “Now our job is to go and get more money.”

Shaw ANC Still a Mess

Shortly after the Nov. 4 elections, LL posted a blog item titled “ANC 2C: Free at Last!”

That was dumb.

With all of his years covering the Shaw advisory neighborhood commission—with its racial tensions, financial mismanagement, and all-around constant dysfunction—LL should have known better than to make such an unqualified declaration.

What had originally prompted the hopeful reporting was the news that Theresa Sule had defeated Barbara Curtis for a seat on the ANC. Curtis had been aligned with chair Doris Brooks to continue the obstructionist traditions of former commissioner, race-baiter, and all-around civic malignance “Mahdi” Leroy Joseph Thorpe Jr.

Sule’s win, most everyone assumed, would be the end of Thorpe’s influence on the body; she was expected to join with the commission’s other two members, Alex Padro and Kevin Chapple, to keep Brooks from remaining as chair, which would mean that Thorpe would no longer handle the commission’s administrative and parliamentary functions.

Turns out no one really asked Sule what her plans were.

On Jan. 7, the new commission met for the first time and proceeded to elect officers. Chapple nominated Padro—a longtime civic activist who has served on the ANC since 2001. Then Sule nominated Brooks. The result was a 2-2 deadlock, meaning that Brooks kept the chair post.

Padro describes Sule’s move, which she told no one about ahead of time, as “a complete reversal and a stab in the back.”

Padro says she had agreed to support him before the meeting, but Sule says she couldn’t do it, citing his possible conflicts of interest connected to his leadership of the Shaw Main Streets nonprofit, which has gotten money from developers with business before the ANC. (Padro calls the allegations “malarkey” and notes the Office of Campaign Finance investigated those charges and cleared him.)

If Padro’s history was a big deal, why not go with Chapple? “I haven’t seen Kevin just come out and stand up as his own individual self,” Sule says. “He sits in the background.”

Brooks has been widely slammed in the neighborhood for not returning phone messages, answering mail, or communicating in general, but Sule says she could be a fine chairperson, given a helping hand: “With support she could make a decent chair. That’s just what I thought.”

As for campaign expectations, Sule says, “I never said I was anti–Leroy Thorpe. I said I would bring change to the commission.…My change was for the whole commission to change.”

Which means there’s going to be no change anytime soon. Padro reports that a constituent who recently contacted Brooks for assistance was referred to Thorpe.

Says Padro of Sule, “It’s impossible for us to trust her now.”

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