When Jaycee Clark moved to San Antonio in 2020, she was on a journey of self-discovery and authenticity. “I’ll never forget the day I saw the billboard for AARC (Alamo Area Resource Center),” says Clark, who was seeking both trans and HIV health care. “It was at a time when I was just beginning to find myself.” Fast forward to today: With the integrated services Jaycee receives from AARC and its compassionate care partner Avita Care Solutions, “I’ve become the healthiest I’ve ever been,” she says. “They go out of their way to ensure that my health and medication is of utmost priority.”
Jaycee is not alone. More than 2,000 patients depend upon AARC as a vital social safety net for the HIV and LGBTQ+ community and look to the center as a safe, welcoming place where individuals can find help, hope, and support when they need it the most. Founded in 1990 to assist in the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS, the Ryan White and STD (the Sexually Transmitted Disease Control Program administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) grantee is now one of the leading primary LGBTQ+ social services and health organizations in San Antonio and surrounding counties, offering HIV and STI testing, HIV prevention and treatment services, LGBTQ+ primary care, transgender care, behavioral health, an onsite pharmacy, housing and transportation services, and health insurance assistance.
The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. And due to the high demand for LGBTQ+ specialized care, innovative marketing efforts, and expanding patient programs, AARC is experiencing exponential growth. But future-proofing the organization to maximize the quality of life for the LGBTQ+ community and people living with HIV by providing equitable, comprehensive, and compassionate health care and social services is no small feat, the organization’s leadership explains.
Read on to learn why and how AARC partnered with Avita Care Solutions to strategically strengthen its 340B program, pharmacy services, and clinical delivery, boosting its community impact and enhancing its mission’s delivery.
A partnership built on expertise, collaboration, and mutual support
It all started in 2014, when AARC selected Avita to manage its pharmacy services. “Avita is a well-respected and trusted pharmacy,” says AARC Executive Director Jose Cervantes. In addition to 340B program administration, “They’re also experts in HIV, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), and sexual health, which made them the perfect fit,” he says. “Joining forces with Avita allowed AARC to tap into the Avita team’s extensive knowledge and experience.”
The relationship between AARC and Avita is “really a partnership,” says Avita Strategic Account Executive Taylor Stockett, “one built on a foundation of trust that includes open communication, team building, strategic planning, and regular check-ins.”
It’s also an alliance based on shared core values and physical proximity, says AARC Community Engagement Manager Marissa Espinosa. These include:
Collaboration: “Unlike other contract pharmacies, AARC has a strong collaborative partnership with Avita,” says Espinosa. “We work closely, sharing resources and expertise to enhance patient care. This allows us to leverage each other’s strengths, creating a seamless patient health care experience.”
Mutual support: “Our relationship with Avita goes beyond a traditional vendor-client dynamic,” Marissa explains. “We actively support each other, recognizing that our success is intertwined. Together, we provide exceptional health care services, engage with the community, and participate in events that promote our shared values.”
A shared location: “Another distinctive aspect of our relationship with Avita is our shared location,” Marissa adds (Avita manages an onsite pharmacy at AARC, empowering patients to pick up their prescriptions minutes after leaving their clinic appointments). “Being physically located together allows for greater synergy and coordination in delivering our services,” she says. “It facilitates effective communication and enables a more integrated approach to patient care.”
Onsite pharmacy collaboration that puts patients first
The onsite pharmacy collaboration between AARC and Avita was the impetus—and is still at the crux of—the successful partnership. Located steps away from the clinic, it completes the patient care journey in a community-sensitive environment patients know and trust. The benefits to AARC are multifold, including reduced patient health care barriers, increased patient adherence, and a boost in 340B prescription capture.
“We’re not only filling prescriptions for AARC patients but also engaging as an integral part of their team,” says Avita Pharmacist-in-Charge Mike Romney. “We have daily interactions and processes through Teams messaging, emails, phone calls, or face-to-face interactions. It’s funny; sometimes, we can tell who an AARC team member is based on how they knock!”
The AARC onsite pharmacy team engages with the community both behind and in front of the pharmacy counter, says Avita’s Stockett. “They’ve marched alongside the AARC float at Pride parades, attended HIV and STI testing events, and participated in team-building opportunities with AARC staff. The working atmosphere is that of one family. Avita provides a white-glove service, from operating AARC’s onsite pharmacy to providing TPA (third party administrator) services to delivering exclusive tools for medication adherence so patients can have better health outcomes.”
One of those tools, Avita’s CareConnect patient portal, allows AARC’s care providers and case managers to view the pharmacy’s patient information and track prescription activity in real time, which helps the team to manage refills and medication adherence better. “It significantly contributes to keeping our clients healthy and supports our goal of reaching an undetectable community viral load,” says AARC’s Espinosa.
And that, says Romney, is the name of the game. “There’s no room for barriers at Avita,” he explains. “We all deserve to be treated with respect, love, and care. AARC’s culture is very similar, and that’s one of the many reasons we work well together.”
With growth comes growing pains
AARC’s clinic is experiencing significant growth thanks to three key factors, says Cervantes. These include a strong community demand for LGBTQ+ specialized care, strategic marketing efforts, and expanded patient programs like the center’s Rapid Start HIV program.
But as its patient base increased, AARC also encountered several growing pains, says Cervantes. “One of the major challenges we faced was finding providers who possess expertise in HIV prevention and treatment, as well as the ability to deliver culturally competent LGBTQ+ and sexual wellness care,” he explains. “Another obstacle was limited space in our current building—as our patient base grows, our physical capacity is stretched. And while this indicates growth, it creates difficulties in accommodating an increasing number of patients.”
AARC Medical Director Dr. Chase Cates seconds Cervantes’ insights about how tough it can be to find the right providers and offer patients prompt, compassionate care. “Culturally competent care for the LGBTQ+ community is not regularly taught in medical school or residency,” he says. “Anyone well-versed in the topic has completed unique training to be comfortable and competent. That alone makes it difficult to find someone. Then add HIV care, typically a fellowship training all on its own.”
The combination of AARC’s high provider standards and a rapidly growing clinic called for a thoughtful solution. “The last thing I want is for patients to feel they are being ignored or delayed access after years of being marginalized by the medical community,” says Cates. “So, all the help we can get to decrease health care discrepancies is welcomed.”
Enter the latest phase of the AARC and Avita partnership, which leverages Avita’s access to a stable of culturally competent clinicians with HIV expertise and a seamless connection to telehealth capabilities.
Adding trusted providers and telehealth equals scalable growth
In a stroke of strategic luck, AARC’s rapid growth phase was taking place just as Avita was broadening its solutions to include the delivery of clinical care and digital health (in addition to its legacy suite of pharmacy services and 340B program administration). The result? Avita helped pair AARC with esteemed HIV and LGBTQ+ expert Dr. Julie Graves, who now provides AARC patients with a full spectrum of health services, including primary HIV, transgender, PrEP, and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) care, via the clinic’s new telehealth offering.
“Avita’s support in connecting us with trusted providers has been instrumental in enabling us to serve a larger number of patients and offer conveniently accessible care through telehealth,” says Cervantes. “Dr. Graves is a perfect fit for AARC; she meets all the criteria we were looking for in a provider. With 40 years of experience in caring for individuals living with and burdened with the risk of HIV, as well as expertise in gender-affirming care, she brings a wealth of knowledge to our team. The initial reaction from both our staff and patients has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Dr. Cates is equally excited to welcome Dr. Graves to the AARC family. “Having Dr. Graves join us greatly improves patients’ wait times,” he says. “Patients can get an appointment quickly, if not on the same day, for sick issues. We’re also able to get new patients into care quickly. Many standard follow-up visits can easily be done via telemedicine, allowing us to accommodate patients who need to be seen in person. It’s effective and efficient medical care delivered in a way that makes it easy on patients.”
As for Dr. Graves? She’s thrilled to be a part of a community health organization with an esteemed reputation for leading-edge HIV and LGBTQ+ care. “I started caring for people with HIV in the 1980s before we even had a name for AIDS or could test for the virus,” she says. “I’ve admired AARC, as well as their persistent work and the huge support network they’ve built, for many years.”
Here we grow again: The future is bright
What’s next for AARC? “We have exciting plans,” says Cervantes. “One of our upcoming initiatives is establishing a sexual health clinic that will provide convenient walk-in services for HIV treatment, PrEP care, and STI testing.
Addressing mental health services for the LGBTQ+ HIV-negative community is another key area we strive to develop further. We’re also considering opening a second location to extend our reach and better serve the community. This expansion would enable us to have an even greater impact and reach more individuals needing specialized care. The community’s needs constantly evolve, and we’re committed to addressing those needs.”
It’s the community health care model that has made a lasting impression on AARC patient Preston Weeks. “Going to a health care provider that understands the challenges that face the LGBTQIA+ community as it relates to mental and physical health has made all the difference in the world,” he says. “It has helped me address health concerns I may not otherwise have felt comfortable addressing with other providers outside of the clinic.”
The Avita team is honored to be a part of AARC’s transformation and commitment to underserved patients for the long haul. “We’ve seen so much good and growth for patient care come out of this partnership,” Avita’s Romney says. “Thank you to AARC for advocating for those that need it most.”