By Mrinal Gokhale
Just two weeks have passed since President Obama visited and congratulated Milwaukee for winning the Healthy Communities Challenge.
“You guys tried everything,” Obama said, referring to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s ability to increase enrollment by 39,000.
He also admired the Black Health Coalition’s efforts to increase insurance enrollment in the black community.
Charles Smart, executive director of Monroe, Inc., a community and minority focused LGBT racial and social justice organization, is happy Milwaukee won but feels much more work must be done.
His passion lies in helping one particular underinsured group in Milwaukee: African American MSM, or “men having sex with men.”
“We’re the marginalized of the marginalized when it comes to insurance,” Smart said. “More minority led organizations need to respond to this crisis.”
Now going on its second anniversary, Monroe has a steady clientele base of black LGBT individuals.
According to Wisconsin Health Services Department, the HIV diagnoses in Milwaukee have more than doubled among the young black MSM population from 2010 to 2014.
Even more, the CDC stated one in three new HIV infections are diagnosed in young black gay, bisexual and MSM, ages 13 to 24.
“Obamacare is about prevention, but waiting until HIV becomes AIDS to see a doctor is not preventive care,” Smart said.
Monroe partners with the BESTD Clinic on Brady Street. This partnership provides clients the opportunity to get STD testing, then go to the Monroe just upstairs from BESTD, for counseling and help in navigating the healthcare system.
Smart cited lack of employment and education as some healthcare insurance barriers. He said almost all black gay men he has known have been high school dropouts and observed that unemployment is especially high among black gay men.
For the first time, Monroe is launching a Peer Health Navigation (PHN) initiative to educate black LGBT men in Milwaukee on the Affordable Care Act.
Smart plans to onboard four peer health navigators to link black LGBT men to HIV testing at BESTD Clinic.
Men who have tested HIV positive will learn their treatment options, and men who have tested negative and lack healthcare coverage will get help enrolling into marketplace insurance.
“We have been developing this initiative for the past year, and hope to launch after Pride Fest this June,” Smart said.
Smart saw a need for Monroe after many of his black gay male friends died of AIDS years ago when he was in college.
He feels many black MSMs don’t trust the healthcare system due to many historical racism factors.
For example, he cited the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment in 1932 when researchers infected black participants with the disease without the participants’ informed consent.
“There’s also the rumored St. Joseph’s clinic closing on Milwaukee’s northwest side,” Smart said.
“Where will the emergency rooms be in proximity to the inner city?
Now there’s just Columbia St. Mary’s on the east and Froedtert near Mayfair,” Smart said.
He feels this is a detriment as the area near St. Joseph’s hospital is majority African American.
“To be blunt, this is racist. People think they’re being left for dead at this point and they think ‘if the government is trying to kill us, it’s pointless to get insurance.’”
He takes pride in his culturally competent staff and their ability to relate to the patients.
“People see me and our staff, knowing we shared similar experiences in this community,” Smart said. Devante Mickey, who recently learned about Monroe Clinic, identifies as a black gay man.
He previously lacked insurance, but signed up for Badgercare in 2014. He is also familiar with the disparity in the LGBT community and feels he has been discriminated against as a black gay man.
“I once tried donating plasma at a clinic across the Milwaukee Mall and was denied.
They said they denied me because gay men have a higher chance of having AIDS,” Mickey said.
He knows many gay men who are unemployed, he said, and feels it is because the “good jobs are an hour away.”
Additionally, he feels the drug test requirement for food stamps is problematic.
“You get Badgercare when you get food stamps, but I know a bunch of people who smoke weed and who avoid signing up due to fear of failing,” Mikey said.
Mickey links these struggles to risky behaviors among the gay community.
“They may deal with the struggle by having unprotected sex or doing drugs,” Mickey said. Mickey gets tested regularly.
He recommends others in the black gay community get insured too. He wishes low cost insurance plans were advertised more, and he agrees with Smart that more minority led organizations should make the effort.
“We need to help each other out,” Mickey said. “I know some gay men who had STDs and visited a walk-in clinic when their symptoms became bad.
It’s important to be insured and stay informed on our health because we never know what we carry.”
Monroe Clinic is located upstairs from the Brady Street East STD (BESTD) Clinic at 1240 E. Brady Street. Visit Monroeinc.org for more information.