STAKEHOLDER SPOTLIGHT: Meet Mike Gifford, President and Chief Executive Officer of Vivent Health

With a legacy dating back to the earliest days of the epidemic, today, Vivent Health is the only HIV medical home recognized by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. We were also pleased to have the organization participate on our recent webinar Reinforcing the Safety Net: Ensuring the Future of 340B. To understand the importance of their work – and what is at stake due to the 340B program – we wanted to delve more deeply into the organization’s approach and how it might inform the Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S. (EHE) initiative, so we sat down to speak with Vivent Health President and Chief Executive Officer, Mike Gifford.

“Our approach has saved the healthcare system over $100 million. That’s indicative of how the HIV community can advance the U.S. healthcare discussion.”

– Mike Gifford, Vivent Health

Q: Can you tell us about the history of Vivent Health?

Vivent Health was founded in 1985. Like many AIDS organizations around the country, we emerged at a time of crisis. The government wasn’t taking action—this was when President Reagan hadn’t said “HIV” yet—and people with HIV and AIDS were experiencing tremendous discrimination and diagnosis really, truly, did equal death. Courageous leaders, particularly in the gay community, led a powerful movement to improve the country’s HIV response. That band of volunteers who came forward to help all people living with HIV and AIDS — regardless of who they love, the color of their skin, where they live, or how much, or how little, money they have — has fueled our organization for almost four decades now.

Over the years, Vivent Health has grown from a social service and preventative healthcare organization to become the only HIV medical home recognized by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. We’ve also expanded beyond our humble roots in Milwaukee to serve 14 cities spanning five states at this point. And we’re looking forward to serving additional areas of the country in the years ahead. 

We use an integrated care model, where medical, dental, mental health, and pharmacy services are all available. We’re equally focused on helping clients overcome social determinants of health by directly providing them with case management, housing, legal and financial assistance, and food pantry programs. To minimize barriers to care, our patients and clients can access all of our services and programs at one location. 

Q: In addition to being a health home, I know you also do advocacy and awareness work. Why is that an important part of your model?

Advocacy is in the DNA of the AIDS response. Today’s activists stand on the shoulders of courageous pioneers in the fight against HIV—who were themselves strong advocates—and we are entirely dedicated to continuing that advocacy. That means we’re not only committed to responding to the HIV epidemic by investing in lifesaving prevention programs and assuring everyone has access to care, but that we’re also fighting for social justice and racial equity. Without those two things, we will never see the end of this epidemic.

Q: In FCAA’s latest strategic plan, we highlight the importance of “HIV-informed grantmaking” in addressing the deeply ingrained injustices of which the epidemic is symptomatic. What does “HIV-informed” mean to you, and how does it apply to your mission?

I’ll share an example that may be helpful. Vivent Health recently created what we’re calling the Vivent Health Equity Scholarships. We’re offering these scholarships in four communities around the country—two scholarships are focused on first-generation African American or Latino students, and two are focused on first-generation LGBTQ students. One of our scholars is a young Black woman who has faced great challenges in her life, and she wants to become a dentist. Only 4% of American dentists are Black, which is indicative of racial and societal injustices. With HIV disproportionately affecting communities of color, especially the Black community, this lack of diversity also represents a barrier to care for people with HIV and AIDS. I believe that part of HIV-informed grantmaking is ensuring that we’re investing upstream to grow the number of health professionals of color who we know play a critical role in efforts to reduce the disparate burden of disease and chronic illness among communities of color and to close health equity gaps.

“We’re also fighting for social justice and racial equity. Without those two things, we will never see the end of this epidemic.”

– Mike Gifford, Vivent Health

Q: How do you approach or partner with grantmakers that may not traditionally see themselves as “HIV funders”? What have you found to be the most common entry point?

The reality is that the broader healthcare system can learn a lot from the fight against HIV and AIDS, such as how to implement “whole person” care, treat patients with respect and dignity, and deal with lifelong chronic conditions. When we’re looking at working with funders—whether they’re public or private organizations, HIV-centric or not—we bring so much experience in providing whole-person care, which has been proven to reduce costs and create better health outcomes. Yes, we’re doing it in the HIV space, but the approach has the potential to revolutionize care for people with serious health conditions.

According to one independent study, Vivent Health’s patients are half as likely to be hospitalized and half as likely to make unnecessary trips to the emergency room as compared to HIV patients who receive care elsewhere. Those aren’t just better health outcomes— it’s estimated that our approach has saved the healthcare system over $100 million. That’s indicative of how the HIV community can advance the U.S. healthcare discussion.

Q: How has Vivent Health’s work, and the communities it serves, been impacted by COVID-19? What lessons has Vivent Health learned from COVID-19 that it will maintain moving forward?

COVID has hurt all our communities, but not equally. As with HIV, people of color and other racialized communities are on the frontlines of vulnerability. Lack of access to care and other social determinants of health worsened during the pandemic, and the impact will continue to be felt for years to come. 

Let’s look at mental health, or what we are calling the second pandemic. For many of our patients, the stress and anxiety caused by COVID exacerbated the mental and behavioral health issues which are all too common for people affected by HIV. Yes, the need for mental health care is greater than ever. But COVID also put a spotlight on how that care should be delivered to achieve the best health outcomes. To overcome the barriers many people affected by HIV face in accessing health care, you need to meet people where they are so they can get the right care, at the right time, by the right people. Especially during the pandemic, having all our services and programs under one roof made it easier for our patients, especially for those who fell out of care, to get the health care and social services support they needed. For example, when a patient comes in for a medical visit they’re screened for depression, and the results may trigger an appointment with one of our mental health professionals.  By integrating mental health counseling and programs into our HIV care, we’re able to reach more people with the specialized care and life-saving support they need — when they need it. This model of integrated care is something we will continue to strengthen and share with communities nationwide.

Q: What most excites you about Vivent Health’s work? What are you looking forward to this year?

There’s so much to look forward to. We just hit the five-year anniversary of our merger in Colorado, and it has continuously demonstrated the concept that we are stronger together. During this time, the number of people we care for in Colorado has more than quadrupled – growing from 800 people to now serving about 3,600 people. Most important, we’ve dramatically increased the percent of patients with an undetectable viral load – 95% of our patients are virally suppressed versus 66% of people diagnosed with HIV nationwide.

I’m excited about our medical home model and the impact we know it’s making in the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS. I’m proud that Vivent Health continues to be at the forefront of the fight against HIV/AIDS and that we’re leading the way in adopting this model of care in more and more communities around the country because I believe it is the answer to how we will end of HIV.