Local nonprofit offers free anti-HIV drug to underserved Austinites

Savannah Schoffstall

While to many, the HIV epidemic seems to be coming to an end, Austin’s underserved populations at the highest risk are still in the midst of it.

The Center for Health Empowerment, a new Austin nonprofit, is improving sexual health for these high-risk populations, specifically African-American and Latino residents in Austin. Social work associate professor Michele Rountree, co-founder of the center, felt the nonprofit was essential for these high-risk communities in Austin.

“The Center for Health Empowerment exists because we want to be at the forefront of engaging people and the services that every person should have access to,” Rountree said.

The center is one of the two clinics in Austin that offer free pre-exposure prophylaxis, an anti-HIV medication that prevents people from getting the virus.

“We already have a good chunk of the population that can’t have access,” staff member Ben Walker said. “Then after that, if the doctor doesn’t know how to get affordable access for the patient, the doctor says, ‘Well, you know, you can’t really afford this, so we can’t get it.’”

Walker, who has worked with HIV centers in the Austin area for over five years, said the simple daily medication is about 99 percent effective. Walker wants people to just come in and let the center handle the rest.

The center also provides medical consultations, screenings and treatment, as well as help with housing, employment and anything else the patient may need.

“A really critical component of how we support people is to ensure that they’re connected and have whatever they determine their needs are to essentially (provide) them those protective factors that diminish their risk for HIV,” Rountree said.

Rountree believes that because these underserved populations are not taken into consideration as much, most people are under the assumption that HIV is no longer a problem.

“We’re providing some of what is fair, which is giving people what they need, but we’re giving them in the context through the vehicle of love,” Rountree said.

MaryAnne Hawkins, a volunteer nurse with the center, said she wanted to help in the field on a larger scale, which is why she decided to devote her time to helping at-risk patients, which she feels is gratifying.

“You’ll see people coming in that are anxious and shy, but you can also see a big change when they leave and they’ve actually been listened to,” Walker said. “So it can be a really empowering thing, which is why we call it the Center for Health Empowerment.”