Clinic Counters

Blanchon holds tight to WWC reins amid examination of management

by Will O'Bryan
Published on March 12, 2009, 12:00am | Comments

First -- depending on how one measure's a local tempest -- came the layoffs in December, including the dismissal of two GLBT community pioneers, Barbara Chinn and Pat Hawkins, after decades of service to Whitman-Walker Clinic. Then came the very public criticism, Jan. 28, as Councilmember David Catania (I-At large) leveled charges of ''negligence,'' lying and other perceived shortcomings, at WWC CEO Donald Blanchon during a ''public oversight roundtable.'' Now, as Catania continues to examine the clinic's management, Blanchon is fighting back.

''I have no intention of resigning,'' Blanchon said during a private meeting called with Metro Weekly, following a pattern of meetings begun earlier in the week. In that meeting, March 6, Blanchon implied that the community may be suspicious of his management of the clinic in that he is a heterosexual man running a clinic started in 1973 as the Gay Men's VD Clinic, and today with a mission that states a dedication to the GLBT community. Hawkins, a lesbian, and Catania, who is gay, have suggested that the clinic may be losing its GLBT identity.

Not so, says Blanchon, tearing slightly as he traces his motivation in the fight against HIV/AIDS to Robert Blanchon, his brother, 14 months his junior, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1999, leaving behind an impressive body of work as a highly regarded conceptual artist. He was 33.

''This is going to be hard,'' Blanchon interrupted himself as he spoke of growing up with his ''Irish twin'' outside of Boston, and of the ways in which their parents loudly protested the younger Blanchon's gay orientation.

Though Blanchon was clear that he wanted to speak about how HIV has affected him in a very personal way, robbing him of his sibling, it was only one chapter of the story the clinic was telling that week.

On March 2, Blanchon released an e-mail announcing three upcoming community forums at which WWC board members, administrators and possibly staff physicians will be on hand to answer questions about how the clinic is weathering the recession, or any other topics raised by attendees.

Two days later, the clinic announced three new board members, noting that 18 of the current 22-member board identify as members of the GLBT community. The three new members are Martin Jervis, a patient at the clinic who is concerned with older people living with HIV; Jeffrey Lewis, president and COO of Heinz Family Philanthropies; and Justin B. Smith, who maintains a video blog about his life as a young, HIV-positive, African-American man.

The next day, March 5, the clinic released a statement regarding plans for 2009, highlighting a contract with Maxor, a company that provides pharmacy services, and community partnerships.

At the March 6 meeting, Blanchon stressed that the clinic is making hard choices in a bleak economic situation, adding that since Chinn's and Hawkins' terms of employment did not entitle them to severance, to have used WWC funds to provide for them would have come from money that could be used for patient services.

''Layoffs are never easy to do. I didn't come here to layoff people,'' Blanchon said. ''There isn't an organization that's immune right now. Pick an organization that isn't going through what we're going through right now. Trying to run the clinic in the worst economic times in years, I've never been more proud. I've never felt prouder, from our board to our volunteers.''

With Catania's reputation as being among the City Council's most tenacious members, now countered by Blanchon's equally firm commitment to holding tight to his position at the clinic's helm, it's unlikely any simple resolution will be immediately forthcoming. Still, there is obvious common ground, as Catania would no doubt agree with Blanchon's March 6 characterization of the clinic: ''What people need to remember is there are patients coming through the door every day. We're part of the fabric of the community.''

The Whitman-Walker community forums will be held Wednesday, March 18, and Tuesday, March 31, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center, 1701 14th St. NW; and Thursday, March 26, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at the Max Robinson Center, 2301 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. To RSVP or for more information, call 202-797-3520 or e-mail development@wwc.org.