Inova opens LGBTQ+ ‘pride clinic,’ a first for Northern Virginia

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Jorge Ramallo was in his early 20s and not yet out to his Bolivian family when he approached his first doctor’s appointment as an adult with trepidation, wondering if the Arlington provider would judge him for disclosing his sexual orientation.

A rainbow sticker on the registration window told him all he needed to know.

“I went in, I talked to the doctor, I opened up about myself. We had a great connection. He was able to address all my needs without any judgment. I felt heard, I felt seen,” he said.

Ramallo, now 36, is lead physician at a primary care clinic devoted to the LGBTQ+ community in Northern Virginia. The Inova health-care system officially launched the clinic on Wednesday, inviting people to access what officials said would be inclusive, culturally competent care.

Organizers christened it the Pride Clinic and timed its opening for Pride Month, an annual celebration rooted in the 1969 Stonewall riots, a defining moment in American history and the LGBT liberation movement.

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The Falls Church clinic serves patients 12 and older, accepts private insurance and Medicaid, and treats the uninsured, Ramallo said.

“I believe the main barrier for LGBTQ+ people is access, access to a space where they can be themselves without fear, prejudice or ridicule, access to a health-care team that can actually share their lived experience and understand where they are coming from,” he said, standing in front of a rainbow balloon arch.

The clinic provides primary care, including preventive care and health screenings, as well as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV prevention and gender-affirming care, including counseling for youths and adults about health, gender identity and sexuality.

Inova President and CEO J. Stephen Jones said the clinic has been in the works since he came to Inova in 2018 from the Cleveland Clinic, where he was part of a similar effort to expand access to care.

“The need is obvious,” he said. “We have a community of people who have historically been underserved … both their health-care needs, their mental health needs, their need to be cared for in a place where they feel they belong.”

LGBTQ youths are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers, according to studies analyzed by the Trevor Project, which focuses on suicide prevention.

Karen Berube, vice president of community and population health at Inova, said she recognized the need for the clinic 20-some years ago as an Inova behavioral health therapist intern in HIV clinics.

“I am hopeful that with this clinic there will never be another adolescent who feels scared, afraid or alone or feels they need to take their lives because they can’t get the care they need because of their identity,” she said.

The space, formerly home to one location of Inova’s Juniper Program, which provides HIV/AIDS care, has six exam rooms, four counseling rooms and two all-gender bathrooms, all painted in a calming sea-foam green, with rainbow flag logos at the front desk and nurses’ station.

Waving the flag is important to ensure access to people who may have been traumatized by previous experiences, said Hector Vargas, executive director at GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality, previously known as the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association.

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“There’s study after study that show the LGBTQ+ community have negative experiences in health care,” Vargas said in an interview. “These alarming instances lead to a delay in LGBTQ+ people seeking care and generally not having much trust in the health-care system.”

Inova contacted advocacy and nonprofit groups serving the community, including the Gay Men’s Health Collaborative, and plans to have a presence at the DC Pride Festival this weekend, Ramallo said.

Inova providers commonly refer patients to clinics that specialize in LGBTQ+ care in D.C., such as the Whitman-Walker Health, a community health center with multiple locations in the District and plans to expand the Max Robinson Center on the campus of Saint Elizabeths in fall 2023. The center expects to triple its capacity to 15,000 at the new space, which will double as the headquarters for its research, policy and education arm.

About 68 percent of Whitman-Walker’s patients live in the District, 18 percent in Maryland and 13 percent in Virginia, according to 2021 data from the health center, and spokeswoman Abby Paige Fenton noted that patients come from as far away as West Virginia and South Carolina.

The Inova Pride Clinic opened with one dedicated physician, nurse and receptionist, but the health system is searching for a clinical behavioral health therapist, with plans to expand further based on the need. The health system is funding the clinic, but officials see a place for philanthropy, too.

“Having the opportunity to get the culturally and clinically competent care you need where you live for most everyone else is not a second thought. That is what you come to expect, but that is not true for the LGBTQ+ and other underserved communities,” Vargas said.

Kaiser in D.C. and Chase Brexton and Hopkins in Baltimore also provide LGBT-specific care, as do clinics in Richmond and Norfolk. GLMA, a national association of LGBTQ health professionals, maintains a national directory of providers online with plans to update it this month.

Montgomery County officials on Wednesday announced that they are seeking responses to an LGBTQ+ community survey collecting anonymous feedback about health and wellness, access to resources and services, experiences of discrimination and other aspects of residents’ lives in the community.

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“We designed the survey to elicit actionable responses. We don’t plan to sit on this data. We plan to use it to create a safer and more affirming Montgomery County for the LGBTQ+ community,” said Amena Johnson, the county’s LGBTQ liaison.

Ramallo, a Springfield native certified in internal medicine and pediatrics, recently returned to the area with his partner from Wisconsin. He received his medical degree from Yale School of Medicine and completed his residency at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and became HIV medical director of the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers in Milwaukee.

Despite his training, Ramallo noted that he, too, has experienced discrimination in the health-care system. “So it is something that is very close to my heart, for sure,” he said.

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