By Emma Kazaryan
Two advocacy groups, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power and the Treatment Action Group, held a town hall meeting on Sept. 1 at the LGBT Community Center on West 14th Street to discuss the abrupt closure of the Chelsea Clinic. The medical facility has provided free HIV and STD since the 1980s.
In March, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shut down the Chelsea Clinic, located at 303 Ninth Avenue, for a major, long-term building renovation, leaving the neighborhood with the highest rates of sexually-transmitted diseases in New York City with fewer testing services.
The Chelsea Clinic was the busiest of nine free STD Clinics in New York that provided testing for local residents as well as for people from other neighborhoods and boroughs.
‘This [clinic] was a vital link. It was especially important to have it in Chelsea, because Chelsea is still the heart of the HIV epidemic,” said Jeremiah Johnson, the HIV Prevention Research and Policy Coordinator at TAG. “People were traveling to Chelsea because they don’t want to receive the stigmatized services in their own community.”
While the clinic is under construction, which includes a gut renovation of the basement, first and second floors, DOHMH installed a mobile testing van outside of the building, which they said provides the most advanced and rapid HIV and syphilis testing. But Johnson doesn’t agree.
“A testing van is not a replacement for a clinic and it is not necessarily private or dignified,” he said.
Built in 1937, the Chelsea Clinic originally offered diagnosis and treatment of syphilis, gonorrhea and vaginitis for people who were unable to pay for private physicians. During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the clinic started providing free and confidential counseling and testing for HIV. But the facility has not been renovated in 35 years, and many Chelsea residents who came to the town hall meeting admitted that the clinic was not in proper condition to provide medical services.
“For many years, the Chelsea Clinic has been in dire need of renovation and additional space for its growing patient needs,” said Dr. Mary T. Bassett, the commissioner of the Department of Health, in a press release from June 2015. “This plan will help make sure that New Yorkers who have come to rely on the Chelsea Clinic can get the services they need while we transform the Chelsea Clinic into a world-class facility.”
James Krellenstein, a founding member of ACT UP, said the number of people who have visited STD clinics has decreased by 40,000 since 2010, while the number of STDs has gone up. From 2010 to 2014 syphilis diagnoses in men increased by 33 percent, gonorrhea by 43 percent and chlamydia by 17 percent.
“Chelsea Clinic visits represented 23 percent of the total visits in all the STD clinics in New York,” said Krellenstein, who added that the clinic used to see hundreds of patients per week. “The testing van has only 14 to 20 visits a week.”
The mobile clinic staff redirects patients who need further medical assistance to the Riverside STD Clinic on the Upper West Side, which reopened in April after a five-year renovation. Employees of the Chelsea Clinic have been temporarily relocated there, according to DOHMH.
The change of facility has not been seamless for Chelsea Clinic patients. “The city’s strategy of redirecting patients to other STD clinics does not appear to be working,” said Krellenstein. “Since the closure, we have seen 18 percent decline in number of visits, which is 4,000 patients.” This decline could affect the increasing numbers of STDs, he said.
While activists together with city councilman Corey Johnson try to push DOHMH to render better alternatives for testing, city officials remain reticent.
“I got a commitment from City Hall to get a prefabricated unit to replace all clinical services that took place at the Chelsea Clinic. The Department of Health said that it wasn’t doable,” said Councilman Johnson.
In 2008 the Disease Control Division of DOHMH, which oversees HIV and STD rates, had its budget cut from $85.5 million in 2008 to $42.4 million in 2011.
“The budget for STD clinics has been cut and has never been restored,” said Letitia James, the New York City Public Advocate, who came to the town hall meeting. “AIDS has not been cured. STDs have not been cured. And, yet, silence equals death and a lack of planning equals death. Closing clinics equals death.”