When Lee Anisman’s partner Michael was fighting AIDS in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he received good and bad medical care.
By the time Michael reached a doctor able to provide quality care, his health had deteriorated rapidly. He was diagnosed with pneumonia in March 1991, and over the next year he lost his vision and became incontinent. He died in April 1992, and Anisman made a vow.
“I saw the horrors of how people with HIV were treated in the 80s,” he says. “I don’t want to see that ever happen to people.”
That’s the primary reason he bought Pride Medical in 1995 from Cole Wolford a year after the practice opened, and the facility is now celebrating 20 years helping not just those individuals with HIV, but also anyone with any primary care needs throughout the city of Atlanta.
‘We wanted to make things as easy as possible’
Anisman, who stepped down as CEO for health reasons last October but is still the majority owner, started out as the sole provider at the practice, but it has grown to include four providers—physicians Dr. David Morris and Dr. Amy Swartz, and nurse practitioners Rodney Fox and Terry Hackworth. Anisman is a also retired physician.
Morris, who joined the practice in 2000 and became medical director in 2012, cites four reasons for Pride Medical’s place in the community.
“One is, it’s a place where patients who are gay, lesbian and transgender can feel at home and not feel judged,” he says. “Another is we do confidential testing for HIV for free. The third is we do a lot of HIV care, so we diagnose and manage and treat and care for people with HIV. And we also do primary care for the general population.”
Pride Medical’s clientele has changed since the doors opened in the mid-1990s, when approximately 90 percent of the patients were HIV-positive. Anisman wanted to provide a “one-stop shop” for those patients as an alternative to hospitals.
“In that time there were people who were very, very ill and they were really debilitated,” he says. “To send them to a hospital for infusions, number one, you’re talking about AIDS patients being exposed to a zillion bacteria flying around, and number two, at a hospital you’re really a number and we wanted to make things as easy as possible.”
The answer was offering medical, psychological and pharmaceutical care in one place.
As HIV prevention and treatment efforts have gotten better over the years, the number of HIV-positive patients shifted down dramatically and the number of those seeking general primary care shot up. Now HIV-positive patients account for less than half of the total number of Pride Medical patients, and they’ve done something that they might not have thought possible 20 years ago—lived long enough to have more common age-related maladies.
“Many of our HIV patients who were with us in 1995 are alive and thriving, but have gotten to the age where they now take medications for cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, erectile dysfunction, etc.,” Anisman says. “All the things that men that age get.”
Another thing so common from those early days has turned into a rarity.
“I can’t even remember the last time an HIV patient died,” Anisman says.
A history not without challenges
As with any business that’s been around long enough, challenges will arise, and Pride Medical has fought its battles.
“The biggest financial challenges were back in the mid-1990s to get insurance companies to pay for HIV viral load test, genotyping and, believe it or not, HIV drugs,” Anisman says. “I can think back to 1996 where United Health Care had basically one HIV drug on their list and if you wanted any others you had to jump through major hoops to get drugs for these people.”
Morris concurs, citing the battles with insurance companies as the number one challenge.
“It’s complicated,” he says. “There’s networks and copays and affordable health care regulations. That’s been a big challenge making all that match up and work for the patients.”
However, Anisman says they thrive on such challenges, and claims that the practice has only lost one battle with an insurance company.
Pride Medical sued Fenuxe magazine in late 2013, alleging that the magazine misrepresented circulation numbers and overcharged the practice for advertising. This led to a messy countersuit dragging Anisman into a personal dispute with Fenuxe Publisher Tyler Calkins. A judge threw out the countersuit, and Anisman followed that up last October with a federal lawsuit against Calkins for failing to pay back loans totaling over $200,000 and allegedly lying about the magazine’s circulation numbers.
“My comment on that is I’m not going to try this story in the press,” Anisman says. “There’s a lot of facts here that haven’t come out and I think they should come out in the courtroom.”
Fenuxe attorney Todd Poole also filed a suit against Pride Medical, alleging it released the confidential medical information, including HIV status, of hundreds of patients. The practice sent a letter to all its patients notifying them of the details of the incident.
Morris claims their number of patients has increased by 30 percent since the incident happened.
“I consider it behind us,” he says. “This practice has grown from it.”
‘We can prevent this’
While the balance of the clientele has shifted toward fewer HIV patients over the years, that hasn’t stopped Pride Medical from setting goals concerning the virus. One of the major tools they use, and will continue to use aggressively, is PrEP.
“That’s a huge new focus for us and something we’re very interested in being on the cutting edge of,” Morris says.
“We would love to never tell anyone ever again that they’re HIV-positive,” Anisman says. “We can prevent this. We can bring this to a zero infection rate. We can do this.”
By the Numbers
• Dec. 8, 1994: The day Pride Medical opened
• 282: Active patients as of January 1996
• 1,352: Active patients as of January 2015
• 90: Percentage of patients who were HIV-positive in January 1996
• 45: Percentage of patients who are HIV-positive as of January 2015