Founded in 1988, Wright House Wellness Center has always focused on a holistic approach toward taking care of people living with HIV/AIDS. Its birth – at the height of the AIDS crisis – was born of practitioners looking to alternative therapies like massage and acupuncture for end-of-life care for those dying from AIDS-related complications.
Thirty years later, the center still abides by that holistic approach, in addition to case management, housing support, and transportation assistance, which have been added over time. This summer, however, marked a rebranding milestone for the center with a change in name and scope of services.
Now operating as ASHwell (Austin Sexual Health & Wellness), the former WHWC added a sexual health clinic to its bevy of services in July. “We wanted to express that it’s not just HIV anymore that we’re focusing on, we’re focusing on the whole sexual health of our clients,” says Clinic Director Ben Walker of the rebranding, explaining the clinic offers prevention medications like PrEP and PEP – treatments that, when taken correctly, can help prevent HIV infection pre- or post-exposure, respectively – STI screening and treatment, as well as HIV and Hepatitis C care, all free of cost. (Often, doctors find a coinciding HIV and Hep C diagnosis, so Walker says including both areas of care only benefits patients.)
Walker admits he sees a need for more HIV-care providers in Austin. That, along with the current shift in care from specialty to primary, were the primary driving forces behind ASHwell’s decision to add clinical services.. “We thought, ‘Hey, this is something that we can provide that people we’re currently case managing could really use,’” he clarifies. In the past, because ASHwell patients had to book their specialist and HIV doctor appointment elsewhere, figuring out transportation proved yet another stressor. (For those without reliable transportation, WHWC offered driving assistance.) Now, ASHwell serves as an all-in-one facility where folks can receive their case management, medical treatment, and other quality of life services like housing and harm reduction support. By creating a treatment space where patients can receive all aspects of their HIV care in a centralized location, offers Walker, “that’s a big benefit for them.”
Though ASHwell treats patients regardless of their insurance status, this week they’re offering assistance to those looking to enroll (or re-enroll) in an insurance plan through the HealthCare.gov Marketplace, the federally operated service that helps folks shop and sign up for medical coverage, before the Saturday, Dec. 15 deadline. Specifically, Walker says they’re focusing their efforts on supporting people that are either living with HIV, Hep C, or those interested in PrEP. ASHwell’s staff, when compared to a nonspecialized health insurance navigators, might be better able to assist in those arenas since they have firsthand knowledge of what kinds of plans, deductibles, and copays to be on the lookout for. These days, he adds, choosing the right plan is especially critical as out-of-pocket costs for PrEP continue to rise as insurers restrict copay coupons – like those provided by Gilead, the manufacturer of HIV and PrEP drug Truvada – going toward patients’ deductibles. “If someone picks one of these plans,” he warns, “they can still be on the hook for paying their $5,000 to $6,000 deductible.”
PrEP, not to mention sexual health clinics in Austin, have been a longtime coming. It wasn’t until 2015 that Walker and Marcus Sanchez opened the city’s first PrEP clinic, Austin PrEP Access Project, which is today’s Kind Clinic. Just this fall, AIDS Services of Austin opened its first clinic, not long after Austin and Travis County pledged to achieve 90-90-90 status by 2020 (that is, 90% of all residents living with HIV will know their status; 90% of those will be receiving continuous treatment, and 90% on that treatment will have an undetectable viral load). ”Different agencies have different approaches to how they serve clients and who’s eligible in different ways,” Walker acknowledges. ASHwell, for example, explicitly advertises they serve those who are undocumented. For Walker, it’s “a really good thing” that Austinites now have more choices when it comes to HIV care, though he does admit more collaboration could be happening between clinics.
Reflecting on the 30 years behind the org and the 30 years ahead, Walker says ASHwell is “laser-focused” on the immediate present. “I think we’re really focused on the now, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” Chiefly, they’re examining – and learning – how to better serve the community, refine outreach efforts, and getting their message out there to anyone living with HIV, Hep C, or an STI: “You’re not a virus, you’re not something that’s a biohazard that’s infectious,” says Walker. “It doesn’t make you any less of an awesome person.”
ASHwell is located at 8101 Cameron #105. You can visit them online at www.ashwellatx.org or stop by their office Mon.-Fri., 8:30am-5pm. 512/467-0088.
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