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Changes come to St. Mary's HIV clinic

by Seth Hemmelgarn

The staffing at the HIV clinic at San Francisco's St.<br>Mary's Hospital will change later this month. Photo: Rick Gerharter.
The staffing at the HIV clinic at San Francisco's St.
Mary's Hospital will change later this month. Photo: Rick Gerharter.  

The HIV clinic at San Francisco's St. Mary's Hospital is seeing some changes as several staff members depart.

At least one patient of the HIV clinic within the hospital's Sister Mary Philippa Outpatient Health Clinic, located at 2235 Hayes Street in the Haight, has raised questions about its future operations due to the staffing changes. Yet hospital spokespeople insist it will remain open and treat patients.

In an April 26 Facebook post, local gay event promoter Marc Huestis, who's living with HIV, said, "Yesterday was a SAD day. The HIV Clinic at St. Mary's where I get my primary care is now closing. I have been a patient there since 1992. During that scary plague period finding this clinic, after finishing an AZT trail, was a godsend."

Huestis claimed that the clinic has diminished over time as its funding was often in doubt.

"I have had several doctors, all excellent, and in its heyday the office was filled with HIV folks from all strata of society who benefited from the services. In the last several years as it became clear that the funding for the clinic was constantly in jeopardy, the offices became a shell of what they once were," he wrote. "It became harder for the facility to function as is, and my doctor made the decision to retire."

Despite Huestis' concerns, though, hospital spokespeople said the clinic isn't closing.

In response to the Bay Area Reporter's emailed questions, Felicity Simmons, a spokeswoman for Dignity Health, which runs St. Mary's, said patients could continue to be seen at the clinic despite two of the clinic's physicians planned retirements at the end of May.

"HIV patients at the clinic will be seen by physicians who are senior medical residents, supervised by a physician specializing in internal medicine," Simmons told the B.A.R.

In a phone interview, Huestis, 62, said he first heard about what was happening "about two months" ago when his doctor called him to tell him she was leaving.

He said he's "always loved St. Mary's," but the general medicine practice there "is not my cup of tea."

In the past, said Huestis, care in that part of the hospital has involved being seen by a student and then by a doctor, and the two assessments could be "completely different."

"You never felt like there was a real clear path of where you were going, and you came out feeling worse then when you came in," he said.

The clinic supports over 200 patients and partners with community agencies. During the transition in staffing, the clinic can help people with referrals "to any appropriate specialty medical provider," said Simmons, who noted there's "an active dialog during each patient visit to discuss the planned transition."

Simmons added that the clinic's ancillary staff would continue supporting patients, "including a social worker and case manager to work specifically with HIV patients."

In an emailed statement, John Allen, St. Mary's chief operating officer and chief financial officer, said the clinic's model of care "is consistent with the trend we're seeing in the community, and is a reflection of the remarkable strides made in the management of this chronic disease."

Huestis received a March 17 letter from hospital staff that said the clinic's social worker had "resigned to relocate." Dr. Toby Dyner and Bridget Stringer, who's listed as a physician's assistant, had announced that they're leaving by the end of May.

"In spite of these changes, we at St. Mary's would like to continue to meet your medical needs," the letter says. "Safe and effective continuity of care is our primary focus and goal during this transition."

The letter also says, "The option of continuing at St. Mary's in our clinic with a medical resident will also allow you to continue your specialty care," at the site.

Huestis pointed to another part of the letter that makes him confident the clinic is closing: "We will be able to continue to provide you primary care through our Internal Medicine Residency Program to meet your medical needs."

"That is not the HIV clinic," said Huestis. "That's the internal medicine program."

He also said that clinic staff told him that their part of the building would be closing down.

Dyner and Stringer couldn't be reached for comment.

Stringer, whom Huestis has known as his doctor, and Dyner said in a March 20 letter to Huestis and other patients, "It is with sadness that we announce we will be leaving the clinic effective May 31, 2017. We hope to be able to help in your transition to either our medical residency program at the clinic or another healthcare provider."

Despite what's happening with the clinic, Huestis said, "I'm not going to be left hanging. I do have options."

San Francisco Department of Public Health spokeswoman Rachael Kagan didn't respond to an emailed question about funding for the clinic, and Simmons wasn't able to provide the information.

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