Catania Calls Out Clinic

Councilmember grills Whitman-Walker's Blanchon on recent cuts

by Yusef Najafi
Published on January 29, 2009, 12:00am | Comments

Whitman-Walker Clinic's management was under attack Wednesday, Jan. 28, as D.C. City Councilmember David Catania (I-At large) and others spent hours questioning the clinic's executive director, Donald Blanchon, about recent restructuring efforts.

Catania, who chairs the Council's Committee on Health, called for the ''public oversight roundtable'' in Council chambers of the John A. Wilson Building, during which he criticized Blanchon for ''negligence'' and failure to consult the Committee on Health before making several drastic cutbacks during his tenure, primarily selling the organization's 1407 S St. NW administrative building, closing Whitman-Walker Clinic's Virginia branch, laying off employees, and reducing the clinic's GLBT-specific programs. Community members founded the clinic in 1973 as a gay men's STD clinic.

Catania reminded Blanchon and the roomful of about 50 attendees that during the past three and a half years he has chaired the Committee on Health, he has collected $6 million for the clinic in government funding.

''At no point did the clinic come to this building for resources and advice,'' Catania said, adding that management have also failed to take advantage of revenue such as Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) wrap-around payments.

Blanchon did not articulate why he or members of his board of directors did not consult with the Committee on Health or its Virginia counterpart prior to making cuts. Blanchon did however stress ''difficult times'' in light of the economic downturn, as well as the clinic's commitment to fighting HIV in D.C.

Wallace Corbett, chair of city's Ryan White Planning Council, also testified that management at the clinic have not been claiming funds to which the clinic may be entitled, describing the leadership as ''unclear and low-focused.''

During the meeting, a majority of the 11 witnesses aside from Blanchon who testified acknowledged they were asked by clinic staff to attend the hearing and speak in favor of the clinic's services, leading Catania to emphasize the purpose of Wednesday's public oversight roundtable was not to question the clinic's services, but the management of its resources.

In one of the more confrontational moments of the three-hour meeting, Catania accused Blanchon of lying both to him and members of his staff. Blanchon did not respond specifically to that claim during the meeting. As of Thursday morning, Jan. 29, clinic management had no further comment beyond what was stated at Wednesday's roundtable.

Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who served as the clinic's executive director through the 1980s and '90s, said at the roundtable meeting that when he left the clinic in 1999 it was ''solid.''

''How did we end up so pared back? How did we end up so stripped down in terms of these services?'' Graham remarked.

Graham said he was deeply saddened that Barbara Chinn, 64, and Dr. Pat Hawkins, 68, whom he had hired and who had worked at the Clinic for more than 20 years, were laid-off a few days before Christmas without severance.

Before recessing the meeting, which will resume at an as yet undetermined date, Catania said he will be asking for a full investigation of the clinic.

To reach Councilmember Catania's office, call 202-724-7772 or visit www.davidcatania.com. For more about Whitman-Walker Clinic, visit www.wwc.org or call 202-797-3500.