NORTH SHORE, Mass.—After sixteen years of serving the LGBTQ community in the Massachusetts North Shore and Merrimack Valley, PRISM LGBT Health closed its doors at the end of June, leaving those who received support from them—particularly HIV/AIDS services—to seek it elsewhere.
Kirsten Freni, who was an HIV tester, educator and counselor at PRISM, explained how PRISM developed as an organization from its origins as The Gay and Bi Men’s Health Program (GBMHP). She shared why she felt the services they provided were important.
“There was nobody here to provide it,” Freni said. “We reached out to make sure that any disparities that were facing the community were addressed.”
Freni said GBMHP was the first organization to pilot mobile van health services in the area.
“We started taking the van to gay clubs and [we would] park and set outside and get people tested, people that didn’t have insurance, people that had fears or they were afraid of stigma around going in to get tested,” said Freni. “Now it’s a statewide initiative.”
PRISM was also, according to Freni, the first program to do outreach on Manhunt and other hookup sites. They were also responsible for doing HIV testing at Salem State College, North Shore Community College, North Shore Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (NAGLY), and Merrimack Valley Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (McVAGLY). They ran a lesbian spirituality group, social events and support groups for people at risk.
Freni said the funding for PRISM came primarily from the Department of Public Health (DPH) and that PRISM originally operated as part of Health & Education Services that fell under the umbrella of Beverly Hospital. Later, CAB Health and Recovery acquired Health & Education Services, where PRISM continued to operate.
Freni said PRISM was continually funded for almost 17 years under the same grant from DPH. However, when Lahey Health took over Beverly Hospital, Freni said that they stated a year later that four out of the five programs in the community service division (including PRISM) didn’t fit their mission and that they were letting them go at the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2013.
Although The Rainbow Times, via this reporter, contacted Kevin Norton, CEO of Lahey Behavioral Health Services, he declined to comment on record. However, according to Gloucester Times (http://tiny.cc/qyqq0w), Norton said that Lahey decided to stop operating the behavioral programs, which included PRISM, in order to focus on “core services” under health care reform. He also said the programs had “incredible value” to the community but might be “better operated by a different provider.” DPH did not return this reporter’s inquiries for comment before press time.
The grant funding that PRISM held has now gone to Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers (MAPS), an organization based in Cambridge, Mass. with six offices throughout the state. According to Anabela Quelha, director of disease prevention and screening services at MAPS, the organization did not apply for the funding lost by PRISM.
“The state Department of Public Health actually asked us to take over the contract when PRISM went out of business,” Quelha said. “So we were absolutely sorry to see them close after serving the North Shore for so many years.”
According to Quelha, MAPS is partnering with Health Innovations, one of their subcontractors to continue providing mobile testing services. She also said they’ve targeted the LGBTQ community before.
“We’ve been doing this since the mid-‘80s, so this is nothing new for us,” Quelha said. “We’re also familiar with the service area because MAPS has been serving clients throughout the North Shore and Northeastern Massachusetts for well over a decade in that area.”
Quelha said MAPS previously provided HIV outreach, education, counseling and testing in the Lowell area under a DPH contract for many years and is looking forward to providing it again and expanding to the North Shore. She said MAPS sees disease prevention and screening as an important part of their organization.
“I think the Department of Public Health asked us to take this over because one of the reasons was the fact that we get it, we understand how to really utilize dollars effectively and efficiently,” Quelha said. “So, for us, we have extremely competent staff and really professional staff that understand all this and are part of the LGBTQ community and really understand how to connect with them at different venues.”
Freni, however, said MAPS “had no presence whatsoever in the area” and expressed concerns with them taking over the services.
“They’re giving an MSM program—men who have sex with men, which is predominantly the funding—to a Portuguese organization that was doing nothing,” said Freni. “They never reached out to us, never said anything about the integrity of the program, nothing.”
PRISM is now referring people to Health Quarters in Beverly, Mass. for testing (www.healthq.org) and to the North Shore Pride website for other referrals to community resources (www.northshorepride.org).
“As a LGBTQ community member, I do highly recommend that folks refer to the exceptional organizations that are currently serving LGBTQ people on the North Shore,” said Brian King, former director of PRISM. “Bringing awareness to these services is vital. Helping to strengthen their presence is a great way to ensure that the LGBTQ health needs of the North Shore are being met.”
In addition to HIV/AIDS services, PRISM also helped people connect to services for housing and disability.
“My concern is the hole that’s left in the community,” Freni said. “We had clients coming to our office, calling us crying, like ‘Where do we go? What do we do?’”
Freni suggested that people who want to express their concerns about PRISM’s closing can call the Massachusetts Governor’s Office to file a grievance or voice their concerns, or can do so online. They can also contact their local representatives if they live in the North Shore/ Merrimack Valley. For more information on MAPS, visit www.maps-inc.org.