James is wiry, intense, opinionated. He is open about being a recovering drug addict; in fact, he is proud of having turned his life around after spending years in the grip of heroin. He credits his deep faith, and friends’ support.
And as a man who says he has suffered serious harm at the hands of his health care provider, James feels strongly that the leadership of Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center made the right call last week when they decided to give up their license to care for methadone patients.
Why? “They destroyed my life,” he said to me in an interview.
RoxComp, as it is known, agreed under pressure to turn its methadone treatment program over to a private company. That move was strongly urged by the state Department of Public Health, which has found many violations in the program. They have urged RoxComp to focus on its core services. Methadone could be provided by another entity.
But that turned out to be only the first step of a new chapter for RoxComp. On Sunday, the troubled community clinic took the drastic step of suspending all patient visits, effective immediately. That came on the heels of a visit by state officials Friday that revealed numerous problems at the center.
Dr. Keith Crawford, the chairman of the board, said the center was closing to address issues of patient care, proper record keeping, adequate security, and, yes, cash flow. In a telephone interview, he said arrangements have been made for patients to see doctors at other neighborhood health centers, and that he does not know how long RoxComp will be closed.
But back to James, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his privacy.
In 2009, James was headed to a family wedding in Atlanta. That meant that he had to set up a methodone treatment in Atlanta while he was there. He asked a manager at RoxComp to arrange it for him. This involves filling out a form with certain medical information, and sending it to the cooperating clinic. It’s a fairly routine procedure.
But when James got to the clinic in Georgia, he was shocked to discover that the form identified him as HIV positive.
Which, by the way, he is not.
“I spent a weekend wondering why they thought that,” he said, as he paced in his tidy apartment in Roxbury. “I wondered if there was something I didn’t know. I’d never even been tested, much less tested positive.”
James was concerned that someone else might have access to the erroneous information, and wondered whether it was circulating in his neighborhood. And after he got back, he contacted a lawyer, convinced that his rights as a patient had been violated. He also got an HIV test, which came back negative.
His complaint was the beginning of a legal education. According to James’s lawyer, Ross Annenberg, because the center receives federal funds and the employee who allegedly committed the error was an independent contractor, RoxComp itself could not be sued in the case. James was told he had to sue the federal government. But because the error did not involve medical malpractice, the government was also immune, according to Annenberg.
Although the government was not on the hook for damages, the US attorney’s office agreed in December to a settlement that awarded James $10,000. After three years of legal fees and taxes, the amount James collects will be negligible. The agreement included no admission of liability on anyone’s part.
Both James and his attorney believe the case highlights the casual way in which the embattled health center approaches sensitive issues of patient care. James — who is still a RoxComp patient, for now — insists that he remains traumatized by the errant notion that he had a potentially deadly virus, and by the indifference of RoxComp officials. “I tried to talk to them but nobody cared,” he said. “They owe an apology to the community.”