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HCBF Grantee Spotlight: Rainbow Health

Originally founded in 1983 by the first Minnesotans diagnosed with AIDS, theRainbowHealth_4C Minnesota AIDS Project grew into Minnesota’s largest, and now longest-running, organization serving HIV-positive persons. In 2018, the Minnesota AIDS Project merged with the Rainbow Health Initiative, a long-standing health advocacy and education organization, to become JustUs Health, newly renamed Rainbow Health.

Rainbow Health employs a diverse team of over 70 professionals united by their passion for health equity. They help people, primarily HIV-positive persons, LGBTQ+, and communities of color, navigate healthcare systems by breaking down barriers. Their mission is to work for equitable healthcare access and outcomes for people experiencing injustice at the intersection of health status and identity.

Since opening their doors, the legal needs of people with HIV have changed quite drastically. At its inception as the Minnesota AIDS Project, staff primarily assisted clients with end-of-life planning. Now, end-of-life planning is still a service offered, but one among many. When people become diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, even though it is more manageable and not the same death sentence it used to be, they still need assistance organizing and planning for end-of-life.

End-of-life planning is a portion of Rainbow Health’s direct legal assistance. Led by veteran supervising attorney Lynn Mickelson, Rainbow Health Legal Services provides comprehensive disability planning services that include estate planning, debt advocacy, and disability benefits advice and representation. Mickelson helps individuals understand the process, get legal documents in place and secure and protect disability benefits.

In the advocacy realm, another staff attorney, Phil Duran, uses his legal expertise to help those with barriers to health insurance, including transgender individuals and minors. Duran identifies cases that help an individual or family gain access to the gender-related care they need but also to help change larger systems at work. If someone is denied by medical assistance or by a private health insurer, Rainbow Health can work to reverse that decision.

Rainbow Health has also expanded to serve other issues such as aging and, more recently, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, Rainbow Health was forced to shift all operations to function almost 100 percent remotely. This included legal services, HIV support services, education programming, and behavioral health services.

According to Jeremy Hanson Willis, Rainbow Health CEO, there was a great
sense of urgency behind getting their services, especially their behavioral
health services, available remotely. Many of Rainbow Health’s clients live
in Hennepin County, and two-thirds of those served are people of color. “A
lot of our clients were affected by the pandemic coupled with the killing of
George Floyd. That increased the need for mental health services across the
board,” said Hanson Willis. In the past year, Rainbow Health staff have seen
an increasing number of people requesting services for mental healthcare,
about half of whom were new to the organization.

During the pandemic, Rainbow Health became a core partner of the Minnesota Department of Health in working on their COVID-19 strategies. The Department of Health partnered with 10 community-based organizations. Rainbow Health became their primary LGBTQ+ partner and received funding to create a COVID-19 hotline and facilitate educationand outreach so LGTBQ+ individuals and others could have access to information about COVID-19 prevention, testing, vaccinations, and more. A challenge faced by Rainbow Health today is that many low-income individuals have limited access to technology, creating barriers to accessing information, document signing, etc. “We had to create opportunities for people to meet in person,” said Hanson Willis. “Our staff went above and beyond to make sure clients had what they needed.”

In response to the growing need for these services, Rainbow Health has received great support from Minnesota’s philanthropic community. Many foundations and various funders reached out to offer assistance during the past year. The majority of Rainbow Health’s funding comes from government contracts, specifically from Hennepin County and the state of Minnesota, using Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program funding. The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program provides grants to city and state governments, as well as community-based organizations, to provide care and treatment services to people with HIV to improve health outcomes and reduce HIV transmission.

Government contracts are the base of the support but not sufficient to meet the needs of the organization’s many clients. Additional fundraising from foundations, corporations, and individuals helps expand programming from the level that state support provides. Many of Rainbow Health’s programs have waiting lists. Grants from organizations such as the Hennepin County Bar Foundation help staff to serve more low-income individuals.

To contribute financially to Rainbow Health’s mission or to find more information, visit rainbowhealth.org. Rainbow Health also works with summer law clerks and volunteer attorneys to assist in the Legal Assistance Program. If you are interested in volunteering, or have any questions, contact Lynn Mickelson at lynn.mickelson@rainbowhealth.org.
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