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Priya Helweg, acting regional director of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Secretary, Oregon Health Authority director physician Sejal Hathi, Cascadia AIDS Project CEO Paul Lumley, Oregon Rep. Tawna Sanchez, CAP board president Miguel Villarreal and Portland City Commissioner Carmen Rubio are joined by Prism staff at the new center's ribbon cutting on Saturday.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 05 July 2024

As politicized attacks on trans and reproductive medical care mount across the country, the Cascadia AIDS Project has opened a brightly colored health clinic to serve marginalized communities, regardless of insurance.

The Prism Health Morris clinic (15 N. Morris St.) is located just down the street from Legacy Emanuel, in the heart of a neighborhood where so many Black families were displaced decades ago in the name of development.

“There is a need to have comprehensive, gender-affirming healthcare that encompasses mind, body and soul, basically, for communities that are historically marginalized and underrepresented,” drag performer Lala Benét, present at last weekend’s Prism grand opening, told The Skanner.

Prism provides primary care, gender-affirming care, behavioral health and substance use support services, as well as free HIV and STI screenings and preventive medications like PrEP, which can safeguard against HIV transmission. 

Kick-off celebration

During Saturday’s kick-off celebration, Cascade AIDS Project (CAP) CEO Paul Lumley announced that the Oregon Ways and Means Committee had just authorized a $4 million grant so that his organization could purchase the building, saving about $20,000 a month in rent. The funds come from a $211 million earmark for improving addiction and mental health crisis treatment throughout the state.

City Commissioner Carmen Rubio announced the city of Portland would be providing the clinic $200,000 in special appropriations funding.

Prism Morris is the latest incarnation of a building that has been providing medical services to marginalized communities for decades – groups that have historically been traumatized by or excluded from American health care institutions: Physician Walter Reynolds, the first Black graduate of what is now Oregon Health & Sciences University, set up his practice here and later supported nurses Mariah Taylor and Juretta Webb as they opened the country’s first Black-owned, community-based nurse practitioner clinic on the site in 1980. More recently, the Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest operated a health clinic within the building. 

“As Pride Month comes to a close, I’m particularly excited to see the increased access to gender-affirming care and HIV care, at a time when gender healthcare in particular is under relentless attack,” Rubio said. 

Gender-affirming health care limited

prism clinic medPerformers Lala Benét and Jimmie Herrod at the grand opening of Prism Morris. As of January, 23 states have policies or laws on the books limiting access to gender-affirming health care, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which notes that prominent medical associations including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychological Association support access to such care. 

Those 23 states include the entire Bible belt and are overwhelmingly “red” states, underscoring the ideological rather than scientific nature of such objections. 

But health inequity plagues the LGBTQ+ community as a whole: CAP notes trans and queer populations are nearly twice as likely to suffer from opioid addiction as those who identify as cisgender and straight, yet fewer than 20% of the state's addiction treatment providers report offering specialized services for the LGBTQ+ community, veterans or those who have disabilities. 

Prism’s request for funding had the support of the Legislative LGBTQ+ Caucus, which includes Portland-area lawmakers Sen. Kate Lieber and representatives Ben Bowman, Farrah Chaichi, Dacia Grayber, Travis Nelson and Rob Nosse.

As co-chair of the Joint Committee of Ways and Means, Rep. Tawna Sanchez (D-Portland) championed the second Prism clinic in Portland. 

A Native American and a longtime social worker, Sanchez recalled the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis and its devastating impact amid poor public policy. 

“It really was just friends and people in my community,” Sanchez told The Skanner, explaining that she had worked for legendary drag performer and activist Lady Elaine Peacock, who owned a flower delivery company. Peacock died from complications due to HIV/AIDS in 1993.

“These were all folks in the LGBT community, drag queen community, and so many people that I knew back then just didn’t make it, because there weren't the services,” Sanchez said. “It was still so taboo, and there was so much oppression and isolation around it, a lot of huge assumptions and horribly disrespectful behavior towards folks. I had friends who just didn’t make it. You knew when those diseases started to happen, the Kaposi sarcoma and the different pneumonias – they were very specific. And you recognized (patients) just didn’t have the support that they needed. So having something like this happen, here in our community, is just so very, very important.”

Mental health and substance abuse treatment

Central to these services is mental health care and substance abuse treatment, Sanchez said. 

“The system doesn’t recognize the huge connection yet between overall healthcare and behavioral health, addiction services, mental health services,” she said.

“We know that trauma is a huge part of why you sit in this place.

"So if you’re not identified as a person with this lived experience, an LGBTQ person – in particular a trans person – if you’re dealing with all that stuff deep inside you and you can’t voice that, you can’t put that out there? All of those things are huge traumas. And the way people manage trauma, oftentimes, is through struggles with mental health or struggles with addiction. So how can we not recognize that?”

Prism Morris currently offers behavioral health services, with primary care available starting in August. The on-site pharmacy is expected to open this winter, Lumley said. 

In remarks before Saturday’s ribbon cutting, Rubio emphasized Prism’s important role in Portland.

“The truth is, clinics like Morris and organizations like CAP are essential and effective in our city, because they know and build on the fundamental truth that our diverse identity, that our experiences and our contributions, our uniqueness, are also Portland’s greatest superpower,” she said. “They’re our greatest strength, they’re our greatest source of pride and belonging. And that superpower is what helps unite us around healthcare reform, economic and racial justice and systems of change. It’s also why extending that belonging and acceptance also needs to include the courageous fight for transgender health and justice.” 

For more information, visit www.prismhealth.org.

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