Washingtonians have been following the time honored Beltway Olympic sports of media-sniping, political back-stabbing and public humiliation by committee hearing for the past few weeks.
I'm not talking about the Hill however, bastion of deceit and betrayal that it is. Rather I'm referencing the spate between organizers at the Whitman Walker Clinic, a historically LGBT HIV/AIDS clinic, and members of the D.C. City Council, most notably Councilmember David Catania. This argument began over controversial spending cuts by the Whitman Walker Clinic and a lingering suspicion among community leaders like Mr. Catania that WWC is attempting to "De-Gay" its services.
The sniping between Catania and the current CEO of WWC have been painful to watch play out. On an issue still stigmatized by society such as HIV/AIDS, its heartwrenching to see two well-intentioned HIV/AIDS activists duke it out so publicly. Worse off is the fact that most people, myself included, even given all the information, are just not sure who to believe.
The Whitman Walker Clinic was established in 1973 to provide specialized HIV/AIDS and other health services to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered (GLBT) community in the D.C. Metropolitan Area. Since its inception it has also pioneered more targeted programs towards the underserved latino, transgender and Lesbian, Bisexual & Transwomen (LBT) communities. It should be noted that one of the programs of which I was most proud of, their Lesbian Health Program, has been largely canceled.
I was privileged to work with that program to bring speakers to my college campus (American University) to educate future medical professionals on the acute, yet often disregarded, health concerns for LBT women. This is but one change within WWC recently. Some of the changes which Councilmember Catania has raised concern with have received far more attention. Given the very complex and detailed history of this controversy, more detail can be found here.
"My biggest fear is that, on its current trajectory, Whitman Walker's days of providing health care to the gay community are numbered,"
-D.C. Councilmember David Catania
"...there is no effort on my part to de-gayify the Whitman-Walker Clinic... this clinic will honor its roots as long as I am here and in the many days after I am not here... it will continue to honor its roots as an LGBT organization. I can't say it any plainer. It's personal for me. It's out of respect and love for my brother..."
- Donald Blanchon, CEO Whitman-Walker Clinic [WWC CEO Donald Blanchon's brother died of AIDS-related complications].
Much more than political bickering, this is a deeply personal fight for many in the LGBT community, akin to watching two parents fight over money. Is one parent or the other to blame, or is it the fact that there just isn't enough money?
"I believe very strongly in the mission of Whitman Walker Clinic and want to see its services maintained. The provision of health care to the GLBT community is absolutely essential to our residents. And this is why the District Government, and the Health Committee in particular, has been very generous to the Whitman Walker Clinic," said Catania. "So I find it very troubling when the clinic's services are eliminated and its mission changed without any real notice or discussion."
- D.C. Councilmember David Catania
Now, I'm not sure how much money the D.C. government has committed to the Whitman-Walker Clinic, but for me the more glaring issue is the fact that so little power resides in the local government of D.C. Our funding is constrained by the national government in many ways and we lack many of the benefits that statehood would bestow on our beloved community. D.C. Votes points out this cruel reality:
To make matters worse, Congress denies DC residents the right to determine even their own local affairs. Other Americans living in the states have a direct say, through their local government, over the laws that affect them locally. But residents of the District of Columbia do not have that right. Congress gives itself the power to review, judge, and approve every line of DC's budget. No other jurisdiction in the country must submit their local budget or locally passed legislation for Congressional review. Yet Congress freely and regularly overrules or restricts how locally raised revenues may be spent and whether legislation passed by DC's residents may stand.
For example, services for the needy are affected by the Congress' inability to pass the District's budget on time and by periodic restrictions placed on the use of local funds. People at-risk of HIV infection cannot be served properly by the city because Congress denies the District the ability to operate a needle-exchange program.
As I pay attention to the public war of words between Catania and Blanchon, it is this political reality of my hometown, D.C., that rumbles in the background of this controversy.
"At a minimum, Whitman Walker's management should have explored all funding options before 45 employees were laid off during the middle of the December holidays with virtually no notice and no severance," explained Catania. "Many of these employees were responsible for making Whitman Walker the premier health clinic for the GLBT community."
- Councilmember David Catania
From a recent Washington Blade Article:
Blanchon also addressed why many employees who were laid off in December did not receive a severance package.
"As a clinic, we typically haven't done severance for administrative or management positions in the past when there's been restructurings," he said. "We do have a union agreement with SEIU [the Service Employees International Union] and have specific severance rules or provisions based on that union agreement."
Blanchon said it came down to offering severance packages or using that money for patient care in 2009.
"It's not an easy thing to go through because the tradeoffs are how would those dollars be used if they weren't given out, and in our case it ends up being patient care," he said. "What can we do with the money if the money is kept within the Clinic? It means more people can be cared for. I know it's a tough decision to make, but I think it's an appropriate one and it's consistent with our mission."
An organization such as the Whitman-Walker Clinic should not have to be in a position to choose between honoring worker-friendly practices and funding crucial services for the LGBT community. When we get to this point, it is clear that the problem isn't what the "right" choice of the two is (they are both horrendous choices), but why our choices have been narrowed so arbitrarily.
As the mice fight over crumbs, the cat takes away the pie. Washington progressives for too long have squabbled over scarce funds as our own federal government refuses us the budgetary and legislative autonomy we deserve.
I am not saying that Catania, Whitman Walker Clinic, CEO Blanchon or other parties have not made mistakes in the management of either this controversy or the future of the clinic. It is clear however that whatever shortfalls on the local level are in a large part due to a lack of representation for D.C. on the national level.
"That area of the city is being heavily hit by the HIV epidemic," he said. "There is a shortage of primary care in that area and there's a real need for the Clinic -- and quite frankly other organizations -- to step up their capacity and be able to take care of the community in a much more integrated primary care way. You can look at some of the stats for east of the river, not just for HIV but breast cancer, diabetes, hypertension, the list just goes on and on. It's an area where we just need more help and so the Clinic's committed to being there."
- WWC CEO Donald Blanchon
Even beyond the health needs of the local LGBT community, we face a larger health crisis caused in part by the lack of funds our unrepresented D.C. community deals with on a daily basis. Even beyond the health crisis, our community suffers on so many levels. D.C. long ago would have legalized marriage equality among other progressive causes, if not for the fact that so much of our legislative priorities are ultimately at the mercy of an out of touch Congressional committee of which D.C. has no voting representation on.
While I once felt the need to find a "bad guy" in the fight between WWC and Catania, I can only think about larger injustices. We are being forced to turn against our own, to fight for inadequate/diminishing resources meant to somehow quell a growing epidemic.