Health Lead Story Local News West Edition

New health and wellness center brings needed services to South L.A.

BALDWIN HILLS — “It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year,” said APLA Health & Wellness Chief Operating Officer Vallerie Wagner with a smile, recalling last October’s ribbon-cutting ceremony opening the APLA’s Health and Wellness Gleicher/Chen Health Center here.

Located in the shopping center at La Brea Avenue and Coliseum Street, the 6,700-square-foot center provides free and low-cost services to residents of Baldwin Hills – with a specific focus on low-income LGBT individuals, which draws residents from surrounding neighborhoods.

“The community has responded really well to us in this space, and the majority of the clients we’ve seen have been through word of mouth,” Wagner said. “But with the Affordable Care Act, gay and bisexual men, in particular, received health care for the first time.”

As a resident of the community, Wagner sees the center servicing a broad critical need.

“We in the black community have enough to deal with without having our health or our ill health being a barrier,” she said, “and there’s no reason why everyone shouldn’t be going to the doctor for preventative measures. It’s better for you, your family, for the community, when you get preventative care.”

The wellness facility features five examination rooms, four dental stations with digital X-ray capabilities, laboratory, treatment room, patient vitals station, and three counseling rooms. (Pediatric and ob-gyn services are referred off-site.)

And in just under a year, the need has already required growth — with expansions including a 2,000-square-foot Walgreens to provide patients with on-location pharmaceutical services.

“One of my priorities for next year is developing a chronic disease program,” said Dr. Gifty-Maria Ntim, APLA’s health and wellness medical director. “So it’s not just you coming in to see me and giving you a prescription. You really have to have an understanding of why you need to take that medication. It’s all about how to engage patients so they are involved in their care.”

Vallerie Wagner is the chief operating officer of the APLA Health and Wellness Gleicher/Chen Health Center.
Vallerie Wagner is the chief operating officer of the APLA Health and Wellness Gleicher/Chen Health Center.

One of the vital components of care is the PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis)program — a recent study developed to assist eligible HIV-negative patients about and offer access to Truvada, the only drug approved for use as PrEP, and considered highly effective in preventing sexual transmission of HIV.

Dr. Ntim heads up the PrEP program at the center with HIV Specialist Dr. Christian Takayama, in conjunction with clinical advisor Dr. Raphael Landovitz, an infectious disease and HIV clinician whose primary research is in HIV prevention, particularly the use of PrEP.

“It’s basically focused on anyone who is at high risk for HIV,” Dr. Ntim said. “So if you’re a heterosexual person who has a lot of sex, or does sex work, or if you’re married to someone who is HIV positive and you want to get pregnant, PrEP is for you.”

While gay and bisexual men remain more severely affected by HIV than any other group in the United States — with African American gay and bisexual men bearing a disproportionate burden of HIV — approximately one in four people living with HIV infection in the United States are women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). African American and Latina women are disproportionately affected by the virus.

Even with advances in access to PrEP, challenges remain in education, counselin, and management of the medication — all issues the center’s program tackles.

“Medical providers may be knowledgeable about PrEP because of recommendations and guidelines put out by the CDC,” Landovitz said in an earlier statement about the program, “but many gay and bisexual men and transgender women may not have insurance, don’t know enough about PrEP or how to get it, or may not feel comfortable discussing their sexual practices with their doctors.”

That was not the case for Michael.

He came from West Hollywood to participate in the center’s PrEP program in January, and finds the controversy surrounding PrEP ludicrous.

“I mean, if you use a condom, if you use a seat belt, if you have a safety air bag, those are all preventatives — I just want to be able to protect myself in the best ways that I can,” said the47-year old black-Hispanic TV producer and entrepreneur whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

Because of the study, this was his first time seeking medical care in about eight years after losing his insurance. He’s since become a regular patient.

“The experience has actually been incredibly great,” Michael said, “I was there last week for the dentist. I haven’t felt more confident about my overall wellness in some time.”