South End Community Health Center on Firm Ground, CEO says

The leader of the South End Community Health Center (SECHC) said this week that the center is on fine footing, even after terminations of two longtime employees at the center last week raised eyebrows and longtime leaders have voiced some major concerns.

Concern mounted among long-time patients and some of the founders of the health center, located on Washington Street in the South End, last week when longtime employees Migdalia Andrews and Roger Grimes were let go after more than 40 years each on the job. The longtime employees were, for some, another red flag for the Center – which has gone through a rough patch over the last decade.

However, for CEO Bill Walczak – who has been trying to repair the center over the last few years – the situation is a snapshot of the modern conundrums facing health care providers and health centers.

“The health center is not in trouble financially,” said Walczak. “Over the last three years, we’ve done lots of things to ensure the health center is in good shape financially and we are. Over the last three years, we have had audits performed without difficulty. We have also had cash surpluses the last three years…The health center is in good shape. We continue to grow by 75 to 100 new patients each month.”

But that wasn’t something that everyone agreed with, including a former medical director, as well as the founder of the SECHC.

“Financially, the health center is in trouble,” said retired Dr. Gerald Hass, one of the founders of the health center and a physician who has a building on the campus named after him. “To try to get control, they’re letting go of people, particularly shocking was Migdalia Andrews, who was hired there when she was 17 in the 1970s…She was not admired by the current administration because she questioned things. It was an unpleasant relationship. It was a shocker though.

“(Another founder), Mel Scovell, and I met with the new CEO and made some suggestions about things,” he continued. “They didn’t seem too interested. The problem is the health center has been run autocratically and it’s a community health center and should be run by the people, which would be the board. They’ve been very passive on this though.”

Former Medical Director Dr. Greg Culley also spoke with concern about the SECHC. Culley was there from 2015 until April 2017, and was very involved in the South End, particularly when the suboxone program was introduced two years ago. He said he was let go by Walczak due to budgetary reasons, but he believes there were other reasons.

He specified that he has a long career in health centers and specializes in turning around troubled centers – which he has done recently in the South End, Worcester and Colebrook, N.H.

“I have to first say Bill Walczak let me go,” he said. “The reason he gave me is budgetary, but he knows and I know he wanted to get rid of me…In all three of the health centers I’ve recently been in, including the South End, the centers were run by non-clinician administrators who had outright disrespect for the providers. The providers in all three were dedicated, altruistic and solidly with the mission of treating the poor, but the administration was all about the bottom line…The problem with South End is there is a toxic, hostile environment that is anti-provider and there is a board that has not recognized what the problem is.”

Culley stressed that five months after he was let go by South End, he was brought in to turn around a health center in Colebrook, which he says he did in eight months.

Walczak said health care has changed. He said decisions that have to be made in today’s health care environment may not be appreciated by those who worked in year’s past.

“The health care system has drastically changed,” he said. “Organizations like health centers have had to drastically change in order to participate in the new system of health care. Things are not the same and organizations that do not change will not do well. The health center will have to change. That means sometimes we make decisions that people who were here a long time ago don’t appreciate…While I appreciate the great work Dr. Hass has done in the past, there are different realities now in the health care system and we have to adjust to them.”

Walczak said he couldn’t get into personalities, but he said they did recently have to cut some jobs due to the state eliminating a grant program unexpectedly. That meant the loss of eight positions. Though three took other jobs at the center, five did lose their positions.

“The problem for the health center is we lost a rather large amount of money, around $125,000,” he said. “We needed to take action to balance our budget for Fiscal Year 2019. A total of eight positions were eliminated and three people in those positions took other jobs at the health center…Five people lost their jobs.”

Culley said after working at South End, he doesn’t think they’ve found the right leader, and the board has not been active enough.

“I think that it’s not good,” he said. “I think they should look for someone else. I think Bill Walczak is a good man and an accomplished politician. There’s no question he started Codman Square Health Center and ran it successfully. But that’s not what has happened with South End.”

Dr. Hass said he also doesn’t think the health center can continue on its current trajectory.

“Naturally, I hope the health center will survive and prosper, but I don’t believe it can the way things are going,” he said.

Walczak totally disagreed with both physicians – as well as others who talked to the Sun off the record – and said it’s important to remember that patient services have not suffered and patients still give them great reviews.

“Our goal is to make sure all of our clinician programs continue to operate and as a result we made every effort to make sure no individual that sees patients lost a job,” he said. “There was one position that sees patients…Our goal at the SECHC is to make sure providers give great service to our patients and we continue to do that. To do that and service families, we have to change some of the ways we do things.”

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