Health Care Heroes honors Positively Living, CEO of Choice Health

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Access to quality health care appears to be one such basic human right. But finding good medical care at an affordable price is difficult, even for those with a stable income and housing. It gets exponentially harder for those on the fringes – people on low incomes, without shelter, with serious chronic illnesses.

Steve Jenkins is dedicated to providing these healthcare opportunities through his work as CEO of the Positively Living and Choice Health Network, a nonprofit public health organization that serves Tennessee’s most vulnerable populations: those fighting for survival of HIV, homelessness, mental illness and substance use and LGBTQ+ discrimination.

“I really look at health care as a social justice issue,” Jenkins said. “If you can create a level playing field and give people access and opportunities to engage in quality healthcare, especially those with complex health conditions, that is our commitment.”

Jenkins was recognized with the 2022 Knox.biz Health Care Heroes Award in the Public Advocacy category.

virus suppression of the keys

Positively Living was founded in 1996 with a $25,000 startup grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Positively Living continued to focus on its residential program during these early years, recognizing that housing is an important factor that leads to positive outcomes for people living with HIV.

“That was the core mission, physical, low-cost housing,” said Jenkins, who came on board in 2005. “Then … as we evolved the agency, we started to understand that there was a lack of healthcare options for people on the fringes, so we thought we could move into the medical field.”

For those with HIV, it is crucial to check in with a doctor, take medication, and take it consistently to become virally suppressed, which means keeping viral loads low enough to reduce the likelihood of developing a virus Reduce transmission of the virus to another person.

“The most important predictor of a person’s ability to be virally oppressed is housing status,” Jenkins said, noting that oppression rates are extremely low for people without housing. “We still focus a lot of energy and resources on getting people into homes and maintaining them.”

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A comprehensive medical component is also important.

“It seems so simple, but the barriers can be quite big,” he said, adding that there is “absolutely” a lot of stigma associated with HIV-positive patients. “We do this work for this reason. I believe everyone deserves access. People throw up walls and it’s our job to go around those walls.”

Eliminating barriers with a one-stop model

Breaking down barriers is something Jenkins excels at, said Kim Lauth, COO of Positively Living, who was hired full-time after serving on the nonprofit’s board of directors and as a consultant.

“One of the things I really love about working with Steven is that he is really focused on making sure that as a team we see the humanity in every person we serve and meet them right where they are “, she said. “He’s trying to make it as easy as possible for people to access services and stay in care.”

Jenkins envisioned a “one-stop-shop” model and set about making it a reality, Lauth said.

“We wanted to get something so that a customer could get services and not have to go to multiple locations,” Jenkins said. “We wanted to make it barrier-free, unite everything under one roof.”

The idea was to not only focus on metropolitan areas but also on rural areas where people faced barriers to supply including lack of transportation and necessary services. Positively Living’s expansion into multiple locations, including Chattanooga and Upper Cumberland in East Tennessee and Memphis in West Tennessee, brought a new name: Choice Health Network.

“It is Steve’s passion and drive that has guided Positively Living for many years and is what led the organization to create the Choice Health Network,” said Tate Coffey, current chairman of the board. “The move brought an agency that has already been successful in ensuring clients get the mental health support they need into an expanded role that also provides on-site physical health care.”

Lauth agreed. “The fact that he has succeeded in growing this organization from a really small nonprofit to one with offices across the state speaks again of someone with dedication and vision.”

Extension adds pharmacy

About two years ago, the organization sold its permanent gated community in Knoxville, but it still pays about $1 million annually to residential customers. Medical and social services have expanded and a new facility opened on Ailor Avenue last year.

This facility houses a full medical clinic offering HIV prevention, testing and treatment services and a full-service pharmacy. It also offers some primary care and infectious diseases, as well as psychological counseling and therapy. Other services include harm reduction work such as needle exchanges, wound care and naloxone education and distribution, food assistance, transportation, short-term rental assistance, and long-term housing assistance.

“The growth and expansion that the company has experienced over the past several years has been a direct result of Steve’s leadership,” said Coffey. “The growing pains were extraordinary at times, but Steve handled them exceptionally well, knowing that the end result would ultimately be better, healthier lives for many in our community.”

looking ahead

What does the future hold for the organization? For Jenkins, the answer must remain fluid.

“I believe companies need to constantly evolve, always be aware of the environment and needs, and meet those needs as they arise,” he said. “We have great providers in this community (so our strategy was to find a niche that isn’t being made. The goal is not to be the biggest, but to use everything we have to be most effective.”

Jenkins sees a current need that is evolving from a natural, longstanding alliance between the HIV and LGBTQ+ communities.

“The health care inequalities that are not being addressed are partly due to a lack of positive care for the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “How can we be effective there?”

According to Jenkins, there is a need for user-friendly care, especially for the trans community.

“There’s a lot of stigma when it comes to hormone therapy,” he said, citing the need for safe spaces and doctors who know how to provide that care.

Lauth has no doubt that Jenkins will realize his vision for the future.

“The truth remains that he’s already gone well beyond what he could have imagined,” she said. “His support for a largely forgotten and underserved community has saved lives and helped people thrive.”

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