Metro Weekly

Whitman-Walker Health to debut new building on 14th Street

Larger space will help community health center better serve patients and expand services

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After 37 years, Whitman-Walker Health is getting a well-deserved makeover.

A longtime fixture in both the LGBT community and for people living with HIV/AIDS, the nonprofit health center’s upgrade comes in the form of a seven-floor, 43,000 square foot space located at 1525 14th St. NW. A little more than a city block from Whitman Walker’s Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center, the new building — with a price tag of $9.8 million — will revolutionize their ability to care for D.C.’s Northwest residents.

Stepping inside, it’s clear that the new health center location — referred to colloquially as 1525 — is not your old Whitman-Walker Health. Gone are the large, lobby-like waiting areas where all patients were herded together and the darkened, heavy, brown doors at the entrance of the Elizabeth Taylor building. Instead, glass doors letting in lots of natural sunlight welcome visitors to the health center.

On the ground level, next to the main entrance, Whitman-Walker will house a street-level pharmacy that will be open to the general public, providing over-the-counter medications, filling prescriptions, and, most importantly, offering advice on how different vitamins and supplements may interact with other medications that patients are taking. The pharmacy — which has a private consultation room off to the side — will be used to administer vaccinations such as those for seasonal flu or meningitis, as Whitman-Walker recommended a few years ago during an outbreak of the disease among men who have sex with men.

The biggest benefit the pharmacy brings is the chance to diversify Whitman-Walker’s funding stream. The profit margin from sales at the pharmacy will allow the health center to use the extra money to help fund other programs or pay other expenses. By not having to rely solely on charitable donations, Whitman-Walker can sustain its work and possibly even tackle new initiatives or programming.

Each floor of 1525 is well-lit, bright and vibrant, with its own waiting room, complete with furniture that matches colorful 3-D walls made from recycled plastic bottles. The color scheme is based on one of five designated hues, with specific equipment or treatment rooms assigned to a certain floor. The basement level, decked out in blue, is dedicated to dentistry care; the second floor, in green, to health and wellness, which includes HIV testing, yoga, physical therapy and acupuncture, as well as a travel immunization clinic for those venturing overseas; the third, fourth and fifth levels — orange, yellow and blue, respectively — are medical floors, with a sub-level on the fifth dedicated to mental and behavioral health, including group therapy and addiction services; and the sixth floor, in red, is reserved for conference rooms, small shared office spaces, and a staff area with personal lockers and a small kitchen. The new facility will open for services on May 18, with a more stately grand opening slated for June 4. (To prepare for the move, the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center will be closing on May 15.)

The new space will also incorporate technology that allows patients to check-in for appointments or medication at the pharmacy and update a patient’s vital statistics — such as blood pressure and temperature readings — immediately by adding those metrics to the patient’s electronic medical records. The larger layout allows Whitman-Walker to expand its number of dental chairs to nine and its number of exam rooms to 28. As a result, the center also expects to hire about 70 additional employees, for a total of 250, including additional providers, customer service representatives and other support staff.

The smaller, more personalized waiting rooms (aided by the assignment of specific doctors to certain floors), the more intimate setup of examination rooms that allow for one-on-one consultation with medical providers, and increased sunlight and better lighting are more likely to have a positive psychological effect on patients. It is that experience that will likely spur the patient to comply with their prescribed treatments, and may even make them likely to recommend Whitman-Walker as a primary health care provider to other people they know, thereby creating the potential for the growth of the center’s client base.

“I’m so excited about the new location because both our current and future patients deserve a place like that,” says Dr. Raymond Martins, the center’s Chief Medical Officer. “The fact is that the quality of patient care, and whether a person had a good experience, whether they feel warm and welcome, makes them more likely to adhere to their treatment or medications. For our medical patients, the more adherence there is, the better the health outcomes.”

When it comes to potential patients, 1525 is already receiving rave reviews. Jimmy Garza of Health Options and Positive Energy Foundation, Inc. (HOPE DC), a support and social activity group for HIV-positive gay men founded during the height of the AIDS epidemic, says the new building made a significant impression on him when he toured it last month.

“I think it’s an amazing new space,” Garza says. “The way they’ve designed it creates a level of comfort for new and existing patients. Even the color scheme helps people understand where they’re supposed to be.”

Garza is impressed by the fact that the pharmacy was accessible from the street, and that each floor has a more intimate, comfortable setting. It’s a far cry from the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when people with HIV were more guarded and likely to conceal their health status.

“It’s no longer considered something you have to hide, with tinted windows, darkened doors, and no signage,” Garza says. “It’s bright and out in the open.”

As far back as 2012, the health center’s board of directors was predicting an increase in the number of patients served, and in the ensuing years, Whitman-Walker has met those projections, thereby necessitating a larger space.

“Basically, we came to a ‘build, buy, or lease’ decision,” says Whitman-Walker’s CEO, Don Blanchon. “We had a couple of options: we could construct an addition to our existing space at Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center, we could buy a new property on the 14th Street corridor, or we could lease a significantly larger new space.”

Concerns over the ability to handle ongoing patient care and construction at the same time nixed the first option, and the health center was unable to buy a new property that it had been considering at its new location. Luckily, Whitman-Walker was able to negotiate an extended lease, funded through a combination of cash reserves, tenant improvement funds included in the lease, and some borrowing. Although Blanchon can’t reveal the terms of the lease due to a confidentiality agreement, he did say the health center would be open “long-term.” The total price tag for the build-out on the new space was $9.8 million.

Blanchon says 1525 was designed around four fundamental values: affirmation, vibrancy, dignity and respect, with the building serving as a “tangible expression” of those values. Whitman-Walker will attempt to pursue Gold LEED certification, a rating of how environmentally sustainable — or “green” — a building is with regard to construction and energy uses. That certification process takes about three months to obtain, and Whitman-Walker will be filing for certification in a few week.

But a new building on 14th Street does not mean the end for Whitman-Walker’s other properties. The city’s Max Robinson Center, in Anacostia, will increase its hours, hire additional health care practitioners and complete renovations to take on more patients. Elizabeth Taylor will continue to house administrative offices, as well as public benefits and insurance navigation, some research studies, and the Gay Men’s Health & Wellness evening STD screening clinic. The clinic will also continue its work with youth at the former site of Metro TeenAIDS, in the city’s Eastern Market-Barracks Row neighborhood.

“I look at this as a win-win-win for our patients, Whitman-Walker and the community,” says Blanchon. “Our patients can have their needs met, and receive high-quality, affirming health care. It’s good for Whitman-Walker, because we get a diversified funding stream and can achieve greater efficiency in treating patients. And it’s good for the community, because we help to redevelop properties along the 14th Street corridor and can serve as an example of a beacon of life and hope that all medical patients should have.”

“A lot of people are looking forward to May 18,” says HOPE DC’s Jimmy Garza. “I’ve never seen so many people happy to make a doctor’s appointment.”

Whitman-Walker Health’s 1525 facility opens to patients and clients on Monday, May 18, at 9 a.m. For more information, visit whitman-walker.org/1525 or call 202-745-7000.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com