In a move that sent ripples through both the Washington metropolitan HIV/AIDS service network and the gay and lesbian community, Whitman-Walker Clinic announced major restructuring and layoffs on Wednesday, June 1. The moves, intended to keep one of the nation's oldest and largest gay and lesbian health organizations operating in the face of a severe budget crisis, may not be enough to stabilize the clinic's current situation.
And, to make matters worse, last Monday Whitman-Walker had its water service cut off.
The water was back on by the next morning, said interim Executive Director Roberta Geidner-Antoniotti, but patient appointments had to be cancelled and some staff were sent home for the day.
"We did have a problem," she said. "It looks like the check crossed with [the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority] processing."
(Photo by Todd Franson)
Communications Director Kim Mills said the clinic's records show that the payment was mailed on the day it was due, but the clinic never received any notification that a service cut-off was imminent. In years past, she said, when payments were missed the city did not turn off the water service.
"This was just one more unexpected event," said Mills.
The water situation couldn't help the morale of staff, who have already been buffeted by delayed paychecks, program cuts and layoffs. A clinic-wide staff meeting held on Thursday, June 2, to discuss the situation was, according to some staff members who asked not to be identified, an emotional and at times contentious affair.
"I think 'emotional' is one word for it," said Geidner-Antoniotti, who addressed the staff about the financial situation, along with board members who addressed the clinic's plan to cut programs and staff. "There's grief, there's sadness, there's anger, there's all of those things that I personally experienced, as well as all of the staff."
Some staff members who were present at the meeting said they surprised by the "combative" tone board members took defending the clinic's emergency plan. Geidner-Antoniotti, however, said she received much positive feedback from staff for having the session, and the clinic is considering ways to increase and improve communication with staff about the financial situation by scheduling more such meetings.
"Sometimes the message and the messenger and what's reality get all mixed up," she said. "There were times [during the meeting] where...the pain that I felt about this was apparent. There were times when the harsh reality was apparent, and sometimes it's a bitter pill."
Even as the clinic strove to explain to staff the steps it was taking to stabilize the clinic's finances during the Thursday meeting, Geidner-Antoniotti had to tell the assemblage that on June 17 the clinic may again be unable to meet its payroll.
"I am still working to ensure that we will meet the payroll," she said this week, estimating that the clinic is about two-thirds of the way there, having made progress in collecting some additional receivables. "But I can't say 'guarantee.'"
She said that the district government is working closely with the clinic to resolve the problem of late reimbursements that contributed to the clinic's precarious finances. However, a new system with a 30-day reimbursement turnaround won't be in place until July. That system will come with its own burdens, she said, including an increase in paperwork and reporting requirements.
The most dramatic cuts in the Whitman-Walker restructuring plan are the closing or spinning off of the long-standing satellite offices in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia. While the clinic is looking into ways to transfer those programs and caseloads to other organizations, the future of the clients remains uncertain.
The Whitman-Walker workforce will lose 62 positions. Fifty staff members were given layoff notices -- the other 12 positions were currently unfilled and will be eliminated. The jobs amount to about 23 percent of the clinic's workforce.
Program cuts include the following:
-- Closing the Whitman-Walker food bank;
-- Cutting research expenses by $100,000;
-- Consolidating the Gay Men's Health Center and the Lesbian Health Center under shared administration;
-- Suspending the clinic's contribution to the Prevention Works needle-exchange program;
-- Scaling back the GNET HIV-prevention program for gay men by $46,000 to its grant-funded level.
According to Whitman-Walker, the elimination of the suburban programs will save approximately $920,000 a year, while program cuts will save about $388,000.
While the fate of some programs remains unclear, some are being moved to other organizations. For example, Dr. Randy Pumphrey, clinical director of the Lambda Center, said that the financial responsibility for the program's alcohol and drug treatment efforts will soon be taken over by the Psychiatric Institute of Washington (PIW). Lambda Center has been a joint effort of PIW and Whitman-Walker, he said, and will continue to be an alliance. The Lambda Center works with Whitman-Walker's substance abuse and mental health programs.
"I want people who need help to know that help is out there," Pumphrey said.
Geidner-Antoniotti said that while it's a difficult time for the clinic as the restructuring continues, the focus must be on the clinic's clients. She noted that the community has responded strongly to news of the financial crisis: "People know the value of Whitman-Walker Clinic."