By Jayne Gest, Smart Business
“When I took the position 25-plus years ago, I said I would do it for a couple years or until I thought I could no longer make a difference,” he says.
He’s still around because there’s no end to the challenge.
“There are never any dull moments — and actually I thrive on that,” Hardy says.
With lots of changes over the years, the most transformational moment came in 2012. AIDS Resource Center Ohio, a community-based AIDS service organization that provided case management and HIV prevention and testing, became a health care organization. It rebranded to Equitas Health four years later to emphasize its expanded mission.
Equitas Health is a regional not-for-profit community-based health care system and federally qualified community health center look-alike. It focuses on population health and being the gateway to good health for those impacted with or at risk of HIV, the LGBTQ community and others needing a welcoming health care home. The organization provides primary care, infectious disease services, behavioral and mental health services, dentistry and pharmacy, which is its key social enterprise.
Since 2011, Equitas Health’s annual budget grew from about $6 million to $75 million, Hardy says. It has 17 locations across Ohio, a staff approaching 350 and is one of the largest organizations of its type in the U.S.
Evolving as needed
Hardy, who likes to refer to himself as the chief future officer, could see that the organization needed a new direction. While it was a risky and transformational leap to move to a new sector, it was part of an ongoing evolution.
The national AIDS strategy, which came out of President Barack Obama’s cabinet, dictated what future AIDS services would look like with treatment (viral suppression) and prevention (pre-exposure prophylaxis), and both of those required primary care providers.
“We had lots of the wraparound services (like) patient-centered medical home models, to providing behavioral health and counseling and social work. What we needed was the primary health care component,” Hardy says.
He also saw other best practice organizations following a similar trend.
So, six months after presenting to the board of trustees, Equitas Health opened its first health center in the Short North, which was followed by a health center in Dayton and another in Columbus.
The organization had to hire medical staff and learn operational aspects of health care like billing, compensation, privacy laws, and working with third-party insurers and Medicaid. As it grew, with satellite offices in Canton, Portsmouth, Lima, Mansfield, etc., that felt different than the larger health care centers, it also strove to hold on to its culture and legacy.
Equitas Health today is made of several organizations that have merged into it, but each one grew as a response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
Equitas Health has always been more than mission focused.
“We’re responding to the community’s needs. We are obsessed with our mission. We are obsessed with remaining relevant,” Hardy says.
The leadership team and board are always looking to nimbly and strategically respond to the needs of the community. And because Equitas Health’s roots came from a crisis where there wasn’t the luxury of time, change is familiar.
“When I hire key C-suite staff or senior staff, I say to them, ‘If you’re looking to work for an organization where the growth is measured and steady and incremental, this is not the place for you,’” he says.
The desire to always respond to the needs of your customers — in this case, patients — is what drove the rebranding a few years ago. After 30-plus years, Hardy says it was uncomfortable to take the word “AIDS” out of the name, but it was necessary.
The organization’s focus was larger than a single disease, and in some cases, especially with younger people who couldn’t relate, it kept patients away. The new name casts a wider net.
“The response from the trans(gender) community, especially, has just been really surprising for us,” Hardy says. “When we announced our mission expansion and our name change, that you did not need to be HIV positive to come to us for care, we had members of the trans community in tears, they were so grateful for that mission expansion.”
Equitas Health will touch 67,000 lives across Ohio, Northern Kentucky and West Virginia this year — and while some are HIV-infected or at risk of being infected, thousands, including more than 700 transgender patients, are not. In many cases, patients drive three or four hours for care, which is why Hardy and his team get asked all the time when the organization will open more health centers.
“There’s no integrated model like us in the state of Ohio. There are other providers doing care; no one is doing the same scope of services we are for the LGBQT community and HIV positive community,” he says.