For residents of the South Jersey suburbs, finding LGBTQ-specific doctors meant heading into Center City, driving nearly two hours to Asbury Park, or heading to practices in Bucks County. But this month all that changed.
On January 4, Jefferson Health Haddonfield Primary & Specialty Care opened as the first LGBTQ-affirming medical center in South Jersey. Patients in the region no longer have to “go over the bridge” or drive for an hour to seek out sensitive, knowledgeable care. The new practice has been in the works for a while, but as with many professional and personal projects, the original June opening date was delayed partially due to the COVID pandemic.
“We started two years ago. There was a general lack of coordinated care for the community in South Jersey,” said Dr. Todd Levin. “We wanted to bring their care closer to home.”
Levin is the Medical Director for LGBTQ+ Health Services at the practice and the Medical Director for Infectious Diseases for Jefferson Health in New Jersey. He is also a member of the gay community, so he understands the challenges facing patients who may have felt uncomfortable revealing their sexual or gender identity at the doctor’s office.
It’s easy to think the community has come a long way, but why is there still a need for specialized health care spaces for those who identify as LGBTQ?
“We have come a long way as far as discrimination and stigma goes, better than 10 or 20 years ago,” Levin shared. “But we want a space where there will be no stigma. We provide training to staff to decrease stigma — make sure it’s an accepting place. A lot of times LGBTQ [people] will not discuss certain health issues with providers. We are there, we are here for them.”
For instance, gay men should have a doctor who will test for HPV-related cancers in the throat and other areas. Transgender men will still need to have gynecological screenings. Sadly, senior citizens who identify as LGBTQ sometimes “go back in the closet” if they worry about being discriminated against in nursing homes or other forms of elder care.
One positive note regarding our seniors is HIV+ care. With advances in medication people diagnosed with the virus some years ago are living bright, healthy lives. We have an aging population of healthy, HIV+ individuals. As an infectious disease specialist, Levin has worked with many HIV+ patients and seniors in the region.
“We want to make sure our aging population, especially those with HIV/AIDS are receiving the best care. It’s an important part of their well-being, their sexuality,” he said. “Patients need to feel comfortable with their doctor because some health risks can come up related to sexual identity. We want to make sure they are finding a provider that can best care for them. We seek to provide that for everyone.”
Amanda Kimmell is the Vice-president of Ambulatory Operations with Jefferson Health in New Jersey. Ambulatory Operations deals with outpatient healthcare offices and services. Her role is largely logistics, strategy, and business development. In addition to COVID delaying the June opening, there were additional logistical issues as well. The facility they now occupy in Haddonfield was not their original choice. Building or retrofitting a structure would have been very difficult in light of COVID-19 restrictions. Like Levin, Kimmel has been involved for about two years with the LGBTQ+ practice.
“We intended to launch in June to go with Pride month but that plan was thwarted by COVID. The location change was due to us looking at opportunities to better serve our patients,” she said, adding they were very mindful of access. “We wanted to see if we could add this service without opening new buildings. We repurposed the site we now have, and closed it for a few months to make it meet our needs. In the Haddonfield facility we are about a block away from PATCO, which provides convenient access for patients. There is also parking on site.”
Prior to this she was the VP of Population Health within the Jefferson system. Work in both of these areas means Kimmel knows the demographics in South Jersey. There are three Jefferson Health campuses in South Jersey, and many of these patients are adults with a significant number being senior citizens. She agrees there are many excellent LGBTQ-affirming practices in Philly such as Mazonni Center, and others in Asbury Park. But that commute may be difficult for the population the new Haddonfield office serves.
The building in Haddonfield houses 10 exam rooms and does bloodwork on site. The initial proposed building had about half as many exam rooms. Having to go to a separate office for lab work can be time-consuming and a deterrent for some patients. Kimmell describes their new practice as “one-stop shopping,” with five staff members in addition to Dr. Levin who identify as part of the community. They are proud to offer PrEP, telemedicine, transgender health services, behavioral health services, opiod misuse assistance, and they hope to soon branch out into gender-affirming procedures as well as gynocological services. Transgender males for instance often feel underserved when it comes to gynological care post-transition.
So far, the response has been overwhelming in the community. Kimmell has fielded numerous emails and phone calls asking when the new facility would be opening up. And this has been going on for several months. Both Levin and Kimmell recognize the transgender community is severely underserved, and they look forward to be a welcoming space for trans patients.
“I got one email today wondering when we would open, not knowing we already had,” Kimmell shared from her home last week. “Tuesday we had two trans male patients asking about gynecological services. We were able to refer them to an affirming doctor within Jefferson but when we told them we would have those services here, within the year, they were ecstatic. This is a comprehensive practice where we will be able to meet all patient needs as we grow.”
The practice takes all or most forms of health insurance, including Medicare/Medicaid. So, regardless of how patients get their healthcare coverage the practice should be able to treat and see them. As they only just recently opened their doors, they are accepting new patients.
“If your life experience has taught you to be distrustful of institutions, those institutions are challenged to find ways of rebuilding trust,” said Adam Thompson, regional partner director at the South Jersey AIDS Education and Training Center. “Our community – particularly our Black and Transgender brothers and sisters – have often been excluded and marginalized from many privileges, including respectful healthcare. By dedicating the resources and staffing to the new LGBTQ-affirming practice, Jefferson Health New Jersey is taking a meaningful step towards addressing health disparities in my community.”
Visit https://newjersey.jeffersonhealth.org/ to learn more or make an appointment.