Groundbreaking Testing Together services come to Howard Brown

Howard Brown Health Center has adopted a revolutionary new way for male gay and bisexual couples to get tested for HIV.

Together.

HBHC’s Walk-in Clinic, 4025 N. Sheridan Rd., is collaborating with researchers at Emory University to integrate a new testing strategy called Testing Together, which allows gay men to get tested for HIV and receive their status with their significant other present.

The project, which began in Atlanta, Ga. by researchers Patrick Sullivan and Rob Stephenson, has moved services to HBHC and the Broadway Youth Center.

“We are a natural fit for the project,” said Beau Gratzer, the researcher overseeing the project in Chicago. “We are at the forefront of the epidemic in the Midwest.”

Before Testing Together, a couple would have to be consulted separately when receiving HIV test results, due to confidentiality restrictions. Testing Together allows a couple to receive their results with a trained counselor who will continue to work with them on a sexual health and prevention plan.

“As someone who has counseled and tested for over four years, it’s fascinating to sit there and realize that maybe one or two — a handful of couples — have actually talked about an agreement,” said Sam Hoehnle, a project coordinator for the program at HBHC. “It’s always been assumed if there’s going to be monogamy or sex outside the relationship.”

Research shows that 68 percent of new HIV infections among gay and bisexual men were contracted from their primary sex partner, according to a study by Sullivan.

“Often couples will stop using condoms because of love and intimacy, which puts them at an elevated risk,” said Gratzer. “We found in the one year pilot and here in Chicago, with discordant couples (one HIV negative and one positive) having someone with whom they’re emotionally close to in the room, has been incredibly helpful in delivering HIV positive results.”

In addition to the comfort of a partner during testing, the aim of the project is to open the door for dialogue about sex in a relationship.

“In the session, they are allowed to talk about how prevention works for them and develop a plan going forward,” said Gratzer.

So far, 40 gay and bisexual male couples have come in for testing. Researchers hope to reach 200 couples by the end of their 18-month project in September 2012.

The project is funded by a $150,000 grant from the MAC AIDS Fund, a philanthropic division of the cosmetic company, whose mission is to serve people of all ages, races and sexes affected by HIV/AIDS, and is one of the nation’s largest private funds for HIV prevention.

“It’s been something a lot of clients have asked about when we were still just doing individual [testing],” said Hoehnle. “Now that it’s here people are really happy to have been given the option to get tested together.”

As an added incentive for couples to get tested together and open up a dialogue on their sexual health, HBHC also offers the incentive of two AMC gold packages, which include movie tickets, popcorn and a drink; following in the theme of “couples testing.”

HBHC is one of the largest LGBT healthcare organizations in the country and tests nearly 9,000 individuals a year for HIV.

For more on how to participate in the project visit TestingTogether.org or visit Howard Brown’s Walk-in Clinic at 4025 N. Sheridan Rd.