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At Prominent Roxbury Health Center, Patients Ask For Their Providers Back

Whittier Street Health Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Whittier Street Health Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Some patients at the Whittier Street Health Center, the main health center in Roxbury, are calling upon the center to rehire former health care providers who were either fired or laid off last fall during a union campaign.

The providers said they formed a union to protect themselves from abusive practices by management that had driven many of their colleagues away.

'Don't Want To Start Over With Somebody'

On a recent evening this month, about 60 people packed a small room across the street from the health center for a meeting organized by Jobs With Justice, a nonprofit that supports unionization. The patients gathered to discuss what it was like to lose the nurses, doctors and counselors they had come to depend on.

Ursel Hughes has been a patient at Whittier Street since 2009. She went there to recover from an addiction to psychotropic medication. Over eight years, she said she developed a relationship of trust with her behavioral health counselor. With his help, she said she was able to recover custody of her daughter. And then one day last year, she was told he was no longer there.

"I don't want to start over with somebody," Hughes said. "He knows my story. He knows my history. He knows me inside and out, so I haven't had therapy in eight months, and I'm barely holding on. So if I can say anything to Whittier Street: please return to the community the decent providers that we need."

Whittier Street lost several health care providers last year. Some say they were fired. Others say they were laid off. All of them had been organizing a union at the health center they say was necessary to protect employees from retaliation by management for bringing up concerns about patient loads, a lack of support staff and the quality of health care. Former and current staff members told WBUR last fall the center was beset by worsening turmoil: copious firings, financial trouble, personal conflict.

Whittier Street said that like every health care center, it has turnover. But two former doctors calculate there were 21 doctors and nurse practitioners in primary care and OB-GYN working at Whittier Street three years ago. Since then, 27 will have left by the start of next month. Whittier Street said those numbers are not accurate, but declined to provide its own numbers.

Adelina Do Canto said that as a victim of domestic violence, she is wary of forming relationships with new health care providers.

"Because I don't know when you're going to leave," Do Canto said. "I don't know who I'm going to see anymore, because it's like a revolving door, not because of them, because we have such good providers but the establishment there now is not doing the best job for either the patient or the providers. They were fired. I called for one month straight. No one picked up. No one got back to me."

Whittier Street said no physician has been terminated since 2014. But documents from the Department of Unemployment Assistance show that at least one doctor was fired last year. Several other health care providers told WBUR they were forced out.

The health center said it never wants a patient's call to go unanswered. It apologizes, it said, if that's happened, adding that its hard-working staff does everything it can to be responsive to patients. The center also said it implemented a new phone system last year in response to feedback from patients and staff.

Some former and current employees pointed to Frederica Williams, the clinic's CEO for the last 17 years, as a central source of the problems. She opposed their attempt to unionize, but staffers said the problems at Whittier Street had been building for years due to a toxic mix of financial pressures and a high-conflict management style.

Do Canto blames Williams, who was not present at the meeting.

"And then she can sit there with a straight face and say we got to cut budgets," Do Canto said. "That's crazy."

Whittier Street said in a statement that, as CEO, Williams "takes full responsibility for the commitment to patient care" there.

Three people at the forum defended Williams. One of them was Stephanie Thomas, who lives at the nearby Whittier Street Development.

"She tries very hard to do what she's able to do," Thomas said. "When you need food to eat, you can always go to Whittier, and they will feed you. When you need clothes on your back and it's cold out there and it's freezing, she'll give you a coat to put on you. Where are you all going to go if Whittier should close its doors? We should not put that woman down because she worked very hard to get to the top."

Helena Ruffen said she had been seeing her psychotherapist for years until the center told her abruptly last fall, without explanation, that he was no longer there. She's also concerned about the decreasing amount of time doctors at Whittier Street can spend with her.

Ruffen described her experiences there as, "seeing doctors and then just pushing you through, not spending enough time with you, not spending enough quality time, not kind of building a rapport."

For its part, Whittier Street said its dedicated staff always strives to give as much attention as possible to their patients and their specific needs.

In a statement issued last week, the center said it ended fiscal year 2018 with a $1.3 million loss. The statement said, "the management team concluded it would be prudent ... to eliminate" five health care providers. The center said it offered assistance to all patients to seamlessly transition them to alternative providers.

This segment aired on March 28, 2019.


Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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