Jamaica residents who depend on the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to provide free testing for sexually transmitted diseases will have to go elsewhere.
The city agency operates a clinic at 90-73 Parsons Blvd. that has offered free screenings for chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes and syphilis to walk-in patrons for many years. Now, the clinic will only provide free HIV testing and will screen STD patients who present symptoms of the disease or have been infected by their partners at no cost.
The reduced service is a direct result of budget cuts to federal programs that assist community health centers nationwide, some health care advocates contend.
The Queens clinic, along with nine other facilities citywide, modified its STD testing practice in March. The free STD testing cost the city agency in excess of $400,000 a year. The vast majority of visitors, about 90 percent, had no infection detected, a DOH spokesman said.
“The clinics are focused on providing targeted STD services for those patients presenting with symptoms or at a high risk of exposure,” the DOH spokesman said, adding, “Routine screening is best managed in a primary care setting, and thus we are referring persons in search of routine screening to low- or no-cost care, where more holistic care can be provided.”
The targeted clinics will continue to provide emergency contraception as well, but residents and patrons of the downtown Jamaica medical facility are disappointed by the news.
“I knew that politics was going to take away our free services offered here,” said Tiffany Coleman, 24, a restaurant hostess and frequent patron of QHC. “I haven’t taken an STD or HIV test in a while, but what about other people who don’t have the money to pay?”
The Jamaica clinic, Coleman added, is well known for its free HIV and STD testing given to local youths. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that young people ages 15 to 24 contract chlamydia and gonorrhea four times the rate of the total U.S. population.
As part of the city’s policy change, the STD clinics will use the term sexually transmitted infections instead of STD, since those facilities will only treat individuals, free of charge, who have been infected, or feel they have been exposed to an STD. The center will treat patients whose sex partners told them they were exposed to an STD free of charge. The center will also treat free of charge individuals 18 years or younger who believe they are infected with an STD. No walk-in patients who want to have a STD test but lack symptoms will be treated free of charge, according to a Jamaica clinic worker who declined to be named.
Healthcare advocates believe the age group most likely to be adversely affected by the Jamaica clinic’s change will be sexually active youths ages 19 or younger since most may not be able to pay out of pocket for STD testing.
The public should be concerned about the center’s decision, said York College professor Renee Wright. The college is located within walking distance of the QHC facility.
“STDs can take weeks to manifest,” said Wright, who teaches in the school’s Health Services Department.
York students were surprised to learn of city’s STD testing policy change.
“That health center is so close to Jamaica Avenue and the college, it sounds like it would have brought in more awareness if the STD screenings were free,” said Rashida Blair, 21, an English major at the school.
But Kevin Hall, 22, a psychology major, said York students could rely on the college’s health services clinic.
York offers free health services to students only. Students without health insurance, or whose insurance does not pay for vaccines, may get vaccinated for: hepatitis B, meningitis, tetanus and, for female students, human papillomavirus. The school, along with Clergy United for Community Empowerment, offers free and confidential HIV testing on Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 2 p.m. at the Health Services Center.
Staffers at the office of City Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) office are looking into the matter.
“We do not have enough information and would like to speak with the administration before commenting at this time,” a Wills spokesman said in a statement.
But Marianita Jaylee, a college assistant at York’s Health Services Department, fears the city’s new STD screening policy could have negative results for the future.
“That’s definitely going to persuade the public’s decision not to [get] an STD test,” Jaylee stressed.