AtlantiCare opens queer-specific primary care office in AC

AtlantiCare stakeholders and the new primary care office staff at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

AtlantiCare held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Dec. 5 to honor the company’s new Primary & LGBTQ+ Care Center.

“We’ve been up and running officially for about a month now,” said Kirby Delgado, who is AtlantiCare’s LGBTQ+ Support Services Navigator. “Patients are really grateful for the work that we’re doing — and for finally getting to go somewhere they feel understood.”

As a first-generation Mexican-American and gay man, he understands the fears and barriers marginalized patients typically face. “Minorities have trouble trusting doctors and healthcare providers,” he explained. At least 40% of AtlantiCare’s patients in Atlantic City are trans, “and the majority — if not, all — of them are people of color,” Delgado said, underlining that this makes it especially important for a queer person of color to be the one to support those patients as they navigate the healthcare system.

He said the difference between this primary care practice and other options in the area is that patients won’t be confronted by the stigmatization, discrimination and incompetencies that can exist elsewhere — such as a lack of knowledge and disregard for sexual health topics and queer-specific concerns. For instance, he said doctors have failed to ask about or present information that is relevant to his care as a gay man. This kind of disregard makes it difficult to learn about, find and receive quality care regarding sexual health or queer-specific services.

AtlantiCare’s service area includes shore towns and surrounding suburban or rural counties in South Jersey, a region not known for being especially queer-friendly. Before the center opened, Delgado explained, patients who needed queer-specific services traveled to New York City or Philadelphia to find it. The closest queer-focused primary care office in South Jersey is in Haddonfield, about an hour away. “Now everyone’s coming from up and down the parkway,” he said.

Kirby’s connection to the queer community has helped spread the word about the center’s offerings. He’s a drag performer and hands out brochures and business cards at those events. He also partners with a variety of local organizations and schools, where he educates both professionals and students about queer health and supports AtlantiCare’s queer-affirming teen centers.

Delgado launched AtlantiCare’s first LGBTQ+ support group. “I wanted to create a space where there’s no drugs or alcohol, no nightlife,” he said. “I created a space where people can be authentically themselves and as vulnerable as they want to be.”

“I’m right smack in between the older generation and newer generation,” added Kirby, who is 28, explaining that he’s in a unique position to support the intergenerational connections that are developing at the support group, which meets in-person on Thursdays. The varying ages of attendees help them learn from each other’s unique experiences of queer identity across multiple decades and generations.

Although Delgado also serves the company as a whole, his office now sits at the new primary care location, and his direct interactions with patients or other community members often resemble social work or case management. He helps people find resources and services, but that also includes less traditional support — like working on resumes together or locating trans-affirming hair stylists.

That idea of deep connection within the community is important to the center’s full staff, including its first primary care provider, Dr. BJ Howard, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician. Howard came to AtlantiCare after serving the military as a healthcare provider, resigning as a major in the US Army.

“I never thought I would be in the military. That was never part of my aspirations,” they said, but when a recruiter offered them a scholarship to pay for medical school, they felt enticed. Later, when they began to recognize military members as an underserved population who lack access to quality health and mental health care services, they accepted.

“When I joined, it was during ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ so that was a conflicting time for me,” they said. “I was happy shortly after that when the policy was lifted — but then I had other experiences of internal conflict when the ban on transgender military service members was instated.”

Howard used their position as a healthcare provider and administrator to advocate for LGBTQ+ patients and find them the care they needed. “I did have a job to do,” they said, “and I did it in my own way.”

Because the medical school Howard attended didn’t provide formal training regarding trans-specific care, they have pursued this aspect of their education on their own. They pay close attention to seminars and conferences that are now becoming more available and follow WPATH and UCSF standards — which guide most gender-affirming healthcare professionals.

Their experiences as a Black veteran who is nonbinary and transmasculine has led to a passionate commitment to working with underserved communities. They explained that queer people should have better access to primary care for preventative services — like cancer screenings, check-ups, and vaccines — in addition to queer-specific and sexual healthcare services.

“I know sometimes it’s not easy to have conversations. If a patient has a perception — correct or incorrect — that a provider may not have a clear understanding of who they are or what they need, they won’t feel seen or heard enough to even go to that person,” they explained. Howard practices what they call socially-conscious medicine, which is more intentional about getting to know patients more holistically and understanding how healthcare intersects with their experiences and identities.

Howard offers telehealth services for increased convenience and accessibility. The practice is meant to be a beacon to queer patients and those seeking sexual or reproductive healthcare — but it’s open to all people and currently welcomes approximately 250 patients, including those who are not necessarily queer. The youngest patient is currently 18 years old, but the practice will include pediatric care as part of a long-term plan.

Howard underlines that even though the team is dreaming up a vision for the years to come, expansion won’t happen overnight. They’re currently focused on finding a nursing professional for the office and will soon begin to seek professionals who will address mental and behavioral health needs — including a social worker and a therapist.

“I’m excited for Atlantic City,” Howard said. “This is historic, and I don’t take it lightly. I’m excited for the community here. I’m excited to see what the future has in store.”

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