Local healthcare providers fill gaps in coverage after Muskegon Family Care announces it will close

Muskegon Family Care. Photo by Anna Gustafson

In the wake of Muskegon Family Care (MFC) announcing it plans to close March 31, a move that leaves about 20,000 health and dental patients to find services elsewhere and approximately 200 employees without work, local healthcare providers are stepping up to help.

After about 70 percent of MFC’s employees were let go last Friday, Feb. 14 and MFC’s announcement on Monday, Feb. 17 that it will permanently shutter March 31, Hackley Community Care (HCC), HealthWest and Mercy Health have been working to address the gaps in care stemming from the closure.

“HCC is participating in community conversations with local health care organizations and community leaders to respond to this crisis in our community,” Linda Juarez, HCC’s chief executive officer, said in a press statement. “We are working together to implement processes to ensure that patients who are impacted by the closure of MFC receive the care that they need.” 

As part of its response to the upcoming closure, HCC announced Friday, Feb. 21 that it has hired six medical providers from Muskegon Family Care, a facility located at 2201 S. Getty St. in Muskegon Heights.

The six individuals hired by Hackley are: Ryan Busch, a physician assistant; Kathryn Hendricks, a physician assistant; F. Remington Sprague, a doctor; Sara Strait, a nurse practitioner; Marco Tatangelo, a doctor; and Margaret Wolter, a nurse practitioner. Patients of those providers–more than 6,700 individuals–are also being invited to transition with them to Hackley Community Care.

Hackley Community Care, HealthWest and Mercy Health all emphasized they are working as quickly as possible to absorb the thousands of patients now looking for new healthcare providers. 

For Muskegon Family Care patients looking for new providers, you can reach Hackley Community Care by calling the new patient access line at 231-733-6750; Mercy Health can be reached by calling 616-685-8500. Those who have received mental health or substance use services from Muskegon Family Care can contact HealthWest at 231-720-3200. If you call HealthWest, you are asked to identify yourself as a former Muskegon Family Care client.

At HealthWest, Muskegon County’s community mental health service provider, employees are working to connect Muskegon Family Care patients with services at their facility, as well as link them to care from other community partners.

“The announced closure of Muskegon Family Care is devastating to our community,” HealthWest Executive Director Julia Rupp said in a press statement. “We want those receiving mental health or substance use services from Muskegon Family Care to know that HealthWest is here and will do whatever we can to assist them through this transition.” 

Mercy Health said its leadership is also “involved in community conversations with Muskegon Family Care, Hackley Community Care, other local health care organizations, and community leaders to address this crisis in our community.”

“While Muskegon Family Care is a separate community health center not owned by Mercy Health, we are committed to working with them to implement a  smooth transition for their patients,” Mercy Health said in a prepared statement.

Muskegon Family Care will close as the Michigan State Police has an “ongoing investigation into their financial situation,” Jen Anderson, the associate director of communications for the Michigan Primary Care Association, said in an interview on Monday. State police confirmed they are investigating “possible embezzlement involving staff members at the Muskegon Family Care facility in Muskegon Heights.”

“Those issues were compounded by the fact that the organization received significantly less revenue from Medicaid than anticipated,” rising organizational costs—such as for employee health insurance, and the “amount of debt owed by the organization,” Anderson said in the same interview.

“It was a perfect storm of financial complications,” Anderson said.

In an email to staff last Friday, Feb. 14, Mitze Alexander, the interim CEO at Muskegon Family Care, said the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration on Thursday “denied our request to receive advanced funding.”

“After this news, the board met yesterday evening to discuss how to proceed with ceasing operations as we are unable to meet the many financial obligations that we are and will be facing,” Alexander wrote in Friday’s email, which was forwarded to the Muskegon Times.

The closure will have a particularly devastating impact on low-income patients. About 79 percent of Muskegon Family Care’s 20,670 patients in 2018—the most recent year for which there are statistics—were at or below the federal poverty level, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration’s Bureau of Primary Health Care.

The facility, which operated with a budget of about $20 million, according to a 2018 audit, provided a wide variety of services, including medical and dental care, behavioral health support, a pharmacy, and care for women and infants. 

Muskegon Family Care has for years faced concerns and complaints regarding financial mismanagement. A 2014 evaluation by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration reported that top officials at Muskegon Family Care did not properly track how it used federal funds and violated its own bylaws and other policies during its 2010-2014 fiscal years.

In 2015, the Health Resources and Services Administration said the facility had turned itself around and had begun properly tracking its federal funds. However, another federal audit in 2017 found further “significant deficiencies.”

At the end of the 2019, former Muskegon Family Care CEO Sheila Bridges was fired, according to employees and Anderson. Alexander replaced her as the interim CEO. Anderson would not specify the reasons for Bridges’ termination.

As Muskegon Family Care faced financial concerns and questions in recent years, top-level employees’ salaries continued to rise. According to tax filings with the federal government, Bridges’ salary rose from  $120,132 for the fiscal year ending in June 2011 to  $461,113 in the fiscal year ending in June 2018. 

In 2017, Muskegon Family Care provided a $288,567 loan to Bridges for a “personal residence,” according to the health facility’s 990 tax form filed in 2018 [which you can see here]. By 2018, Bridges still owed the facility $280,544, according to the same tax statement.

Other administrators’ salaries rose as well. In the fiscal year ending in June 2015, for example, Marsha DeBoer, the chief financial officer for Muskegon Family Care, made $58,515; by 2018, she was earning $183,180, according to the organization’s tax filing. 

Employees, who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, and patients slammed Bridges’ work as CEO, saying she created an atmosphere “rooted in fear and retaliation.”

“It breaks our hearts,” Amanda Hayes, a patient at Muskegon Family Care, said last Friday of the impending closure. “Not only are patients scrambling, but the employees just found out this morning. We’ve been going here for 16 years; they’ve become like family to us. Now they’re suffering the consequences of the CEO.”

Despite the difficulties, patients also emphasized that the staff often felt like family to them.

“With a lot of those doctors in there, there’s almost a family feel,” said Krystal Lamb, a patient at Muskegon Family Care. “I had my [obstetrician] there, my dentist; we went there for everything. Now everyone’s panicking; we’ll be lucky to get in anywhere anytime soon.”

Healthcare providers said they want to alleviate that panic.

“Our mission is to promote and support our patients’ health with integrity, quality, respect, and compassion, and that’s a commitment we intend to honor,” Juarez, of HCC, said.

Rupp, of HealthWest, emphasized a similar sentiment.

“HealthWest serves as part of our community’s public safety net when it comes to mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance use services,” Rupp said. “We take our role as part of the safety net seriously and situations like this show just how important these resources are for our community.” 

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing muskegontimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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