The San Antonio AIDS Foundation (SAAF) on Friday opened its new care clinic, a 6,500-square-foot facility that will provide medical services for people with HIV/AIDS, a full-service pharmacy, and mental health treatment.

SAAF CEO Cynthia Nelson told the Rivard Report that the organization, which has been providing comprehensive services to people affected by HIV/AIDS since 1986, has evolved through the years to meet the needs of HIV/AIDS patients based on modern treatment and science.

“Fewer and fewer people are dying of AIDS, and more are living long, productive lives while they manage a chronic disease,” Nelson said.

The care clinic focuses on educating the community and helping people access treatment, Nelson said, and with the inclusion on an on-site pharmacy, the facility at 818 E. Grayson St. will function as a “one-stop shop,” lowering barriers to treatment.

(From left) San Antonio AIDS Foundation CEO Cynthia Nelson and San Antonio AIDS Foundation Medical Director Wari Allison cut a ribbon to honor the Care Clinic, the first outpatient HIV healthcare facility on the East Side.
(From left) San Antonio AIDS Foundation CEO Cynthia Nelson and Dr. Wari Allison, the foundation’s medical director, cut a ribbon to officially open the care clinic, the first outpatient HIV healthcare facility on the Eastside. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In Bexar County, 6,343 people are currently diagnosed with HIV. The rate of HIV infection – 19.1 cases per 100,000 people – is well above the U.S. average of 12.3 cases her 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The care clinic receives federal funding through the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, which has provided grants to organizations that service uninsured or underinsured people living with HIV since 1991. While the care clinic accepts insured patients, it more often provides services at no cost to patients.

Dr. Wari Allison, an infectious disease specialist with UT Health San Antonio and the medical director of the SAAF clinic, told the Rivard Report that often people don’t seek treatment for HIV because they are worried they won’t be able to afford it or they feel stigmatized.

“You can lose people between the positive HIV test and getting them into care,” Allison said. “There is an emotional aspect. Some people are shocked or in denial, and are not ready to accept the diagnosis,” which is why the treatment team at SAAF focuses on the patient holistically, she explained.

After being recruited in March to join UT Health and head the clinical partnership with SAAF, Allison will serve as both medical director and attending physician for the care clinic.

SAAF closed its inpatient treatment services in March, a move Nelson said was in response to receiving fewer referrals for people living with HIV who need intensive nursing care or hospice, and the increasing availability of treatment options.

“There are currently 29 effective drugs for HIV that are very effective in suppressing the virus,” Allison said. “It’s not a cure, but it certainly is enough to allow people to live essentially a normal life.”

The clinic opens at a time when the number of people living with HIV in Bexar County is increasing; the number of people newly diagnosed with HIV increased by more than 50% in the last decade, from 234 in 2006 to 360 last year, higher than the state average, according to San Antonio Metropolitan Health District officials.

The CDC, working alongside the Texas Department of State Health Services and Metro Health, have identified 16 HIV clusters in Texas, which has one of the highest infection rates in the country. The CDC recently awarded Texas a grant to investigate the clusters; it found the state’s largest HIV cluster is located in San Antonio, with 34 confirmed cases of viruses that are genetically similar and, therefore, linked.

San Antonio AIDS Foundation Medical Director Wari Allison (left) gives a tour of the new Care Clinic.
Dr. Wari Allison (left), San Antonio AIDS Foundation medical director, gives a tour of the new care clinic. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The on-site pharmacy will include medication consultation, education, free and confidential delivery, and refill reminders. Pharmacy staff were trained to help patients navigate the complicated world of prescription drug programs, such as the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, a state program offering FDA-approved medications to low-income people living with HIV.

“We are the only AIDS service organization open 365 days a year,” Nelson said. In addition to medical services, SAAF offers three meals a day to anyone with HIV/AIDS; in 2016, they provided over 35,000 meals. Once a month, the San Antonio Food Bank donates over 100 pounds of food to SAAF to distribute to local residents.

SAAF’s expansion of services makes the nonprofit the first to offer comprehensive treatment for HIV/AIDS on the city’s Eastside. Since August, the care clinic has been in “soft opening” mode, providing outpatient treatment to 136 patients.

“It’s important to make sure that people get care and that they stay in care,” Nelson said. “The location helps to reduce barriers by providing services that were previously unavailable on this side of town.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.