At Bergen New Bridge, taking pride in care giving is 24/7/365 effort

Deborah Visconi. (File photo)

Every June, we recognize Pride Month and the opportunity to focus on the LGBTQ+ community with celebrations and conversations regarding how the community can be better supported and served. While this is important, what happens the other 11 months of the year? Further, how are we providing safe, equitable, accessible and affordable health care to not only the LGBTQ+ community, but all other underserved communities?

It is time to look at the systemic challenges to underserved communities and make a consistent plan to address the disparities, injustice and inequities — and, far too often, violence — affecting these communities every day. As a community, we must put actions to our words and come together to celebrate our differences, not attack them.

it is no secret there have been attacks, both verbal and physical, on members of the LGBTQ+ community that have had a tremendous negative impact, especially on transgender people, children and youth. This is unacceptable.

Bergen New Bridge Medical Center, as the largest hospital in New Jersey with a safety net mission, is proud to provide culturally competent care, especially to those traditionally underserved. Our LGBTQ+ Health & Wellness Center is led by Medical Director Dr. Christopher Awwad and program specialist Finn Schubert, who are not only providers and thought leaders, but also members of the community. The center provides gender-affirming hormone therapy, HIV care, PrEP, as well as LGBTQ+ affirming providers, who will make all we treat feel welcome.

The pandemic brought to the forefront what our medical center has known — people of color were underserved and at times untrusting of health care providers. It has been a mission of the medical center to engage with leaders in these communities and bring our staff and services directly to those who need our help and assistance — and we intensified these efforts as we fought COVID-19. Whether it was providing COVID-19 testing and vaccinations to the Ramapough Lenape Nation or bringing our mobile units to provide vaccines and health screenings directly in communities, the medical center recognized more must be done to meet the needs of those we serve.

Veterans have given so much to our country through their service, sacrifice and dedication. Too often, these veterans do not receive both the health care and behavioral care services they need. The medical center worked to become a VA Community Care Provider so that the more than 20,000 veterans living in Bergen County would have access to the services they need right in their own backyard.

Children and teens are also desperately underserved when it comes to behavioral health, which is part of the reason we are facing a tragic and frightening youth mental health crisis in this country. Too often, the stigma around mental illness stops the child or teen or even their parent or guardian from reaching out to get help that might save a life. When help is asked for, many find there are not available services, or long wait lists even for those who are in crisis. During the pandemic, the medical center established the Hope and Resiliency Center for Youth, which addressed the critical need for an intensive outpatient program for at risk youth ages 13-17.

Another fallout from the pandemic was the significant rise in substance use disorders as people tried to self-medicate while enduring feelings of loneliness and isolation. The medical center found a way to continue substance use disorder treatment and recovery programs both in person and via telehealth. These programs were literally lifelines for a population that is often marginalized and stigmatized.

For Pride Month 2023, Bergen New Bridge took a global look at the struggles all underserved communities face — whether they identify as LGBTQ+, struggle with mental illness, are diagnosed with a substance use disorder or simply lack access to high-quality culturally competent care like our veterans and people of color. We ask the entire health care community to do the same. In the end, it comes down to building trust with underserved communities and working with them, getting their input on the services they need and the best way to deliver them.

Here at the medical center, Pride does not happen solely in the month of June. Rather, it occurs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Our role in the community is simple — to provide all the care anyone needs, when and where they need it. When people come for one community with verbal and physical attacks, they come for as all, and we must stand tall and fight against hate. After all, we are only as healthy and safe as the least healthy and safe member of our community. We are dedicated to elevating the health and wellness of all we serve and being a true partner every day to underserved communities to increase access, promote equity and reduce disparities.

Deborah Visconi is the CEO and president of Bergen New Bridge Medical Center.