The Health Initiative Conquers the Unique Healthcare Challenges of the LGBTQ Community

The Health Initiative is on a mission to improve the health and wellbeing of Georgia’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community. The Atlanta-based nonprofit offers health education and screenings, support, access to care, training for healthcare providers and advocacy. They’re Georgia’s voice for LGBTQ health, so for this week’s Friday Five, so we went to their voice (the voice’s voice… huh?… just roll with it), Health Initiative Executive Director Linda Ellis.

Break it down for us: what are the special challenges the LGBT community faces when it comes to health and healthcare?

Executive Director Linda Ellis

Executive Director Linda Ellis

The things that put everyone at risk for developing certain cancers and other diseases, like diabetes or heart disease, also put the LGBT community at risk, of course, but those of us in the LGBT community are also more likely to be un- or under-insured (we can’t marry in Georgia, so many can’t get insurance through their partner’s plans) and as a result get fewer screenings or delay doctor visits. We tend to smoke more — because we’re more likely gather in bars that allow smoking or away from children, which might otherwise inhibit smoking.  The tobacco industry puts a great deal of energy into marketing to our community as well, going so far as to link the fight for equal rights to the “right to smoke.” For a variety of reasons, lesbians tend to have higher BMIs than their straight sisters, and many gay women delay or forego childbearing, which can increase cancer risk. Rates of depression are higher. And many healthcare providers, consciously or unconsciously, bring their personal biases into the room with them when they treat an LGBT patient. This can cause those patients to withhold information or avoid seeking medical care when they need it. Addressing these issues comes down to helping people make healthier choices, helping them get more and better access to care, and changing parts of the healthcare system that can be discriminatory, insufficient, or unfair.

The Health Initiative provides programming, support groups and, even a Community Health Fund to cover some costs for the un- or under-insured. Where does the money come from?

Like all nonprofit organizations, we are do a great deal of creative scrambling to cover all the bases and have learned to operate pretty leanly. As a LGBT organization working in the South, we have to work double time to secure traditional grants and contracts, but that’s getting better. Our Health Fund is built on the generosity of our donors and often becomes a “pay it forward” experience. If you need it, use it, and when you’re able, give, so someone else can.

It seems just about everybody and their momma has an opinion on the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”). How did this change in the insurance landscape affect The Health Initiative?

wellatl2The ACA has been a welcome relief to many LGBT folks because we’re more likely to not have health insurance through traditional means (family plans, etc). The Health Initiative now has four staff members working statewide to educate and assist individuals with securing coverage. Open Enrollment starts tomorrow (Saturday, November 15), and we’re set up to help anyone, so if you have questions, give us a call.

You’ve been an activist within the Atlanta community for years now, working with LGBT youth as the first executive director at YouthPride. It’s not a stretch to say you’ve become one of those “community pillars” talked about during award ceremonies. So who do you look up to? What keeps you inspired?

You’re very kind, and I’ve been very lucky. I love my work because I spend most of my days talking with people and helping them work through the stuff of life. It’s not always easy, but it’s good. And I guess that’s true of life — not always easy, but good. Folks who live it well, whatever they’ve been given, inspire me.

What’s on the horizon for The Health Initiative? And how can people get involved?

We’re going to continue helping LGBT folks across the state to make healthier choices, helping them get more and better access to care. These days, we can use help staffing health fairs and enrollment events. And always, you can help by writing a check (or swiping your card). A donation of as little as $50 to our Community Health Fund can cover the cost of an office visit and basic health screenings for an uninsured individual. It’s important, and it helps.

Keep up with The Health Initiative on Facebook and Twitter.