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Adrian Walker

Roxbury health center closes its doors forever

It was just about a month ago that Pratt Wiley, a 36-year-old lawyer with a glittering résumé, was brought in to serve as interim CEO of the Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center. His job: Figure out how to salvage the temporarily closed clinic, a neighborhood landmark.

Wiley worked doggedly to rebuild morale among a battered staff, and to accommodate skeptical federal and state regulators, in hopes of getting the center back on track.

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But Friday morning he found out just how tenuous everything — even his own status — was. He was fired, along with the entire staff (who had been told the week before they were “furloughed”). RoxComp, he was told, had surrendered all its licenses to operate. A primary caregiver for as many as 10,000 residents was no more.

True to form, the board permanently closed the center with no public notice.

Although Wiley was there only a short time, it was enough for him to see the heroics of the staff, and just what the neighborhood was losing.

On Wiley’s second day on the job he laid off 10 percent of the staff. He told the remaining employees that more layoffs were likely, and that the odds of reopening were even at best. He was stunned by what he saw the next workday. “Everyone, without fail, was there because they had work to do for their patients. The staff here was phenomenal, and I’m proud to have been associated with them.”

A week ago, a hastily arranged plan was announced for RoxComp’s reopening to be overseen by Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center. By midweek, for a variety of technical reasons, it had become clear that the quasi-merger of the two institutions could not be executed overnight, and the plan died. Even so, when I talked to Wiley on Thursday, he was working on a turnaround plan, unaware that his bosses had other ideas.

When businesses fail, the public tends to quickly lose interest. But a bankrupt nonprofit that provides vital services is not an ordinary business, and there is an urgent public interest in knowing how the cherished 45 year-old institution died.

There are investigations underway, and they must continue. RoxComp was mostly funded by its patients, along with federal and state grants. At some point, while money was still flowing in, the center essentially stopped paying its bills, which raises a basic question: Where did the money go?

“I have no idea,” Wiley told me. “It’s a fair question.”

Much attention has rightly been focused on the role of former chief executive Anita Crawford, who was forced out last month after years of complaints from staff and hard questions from regulators. Certainly she has a lot of questions to answer, under subpoena if need be.

But the board is a mystery as well. Headed by medical researcher Dr. Keith Crawford (no relation to Anita), it clearly failed at every aspect of oversight. For years, it did not even have the required nine members. Its past and present members, some prominent, need to explain their failure, too. Where were they?

Keith Crawford insisted last week that government agencies and insurance companies owe RoxComp a lot of money — $900,000 by one estimate. Wiley says RoxComp can, at best, collect half that, barely enough to pay former employees back pay and vacation, which is absolutely imperative. The only plausible bailout plan may be to sell the center’s headquarters, which was appraised a couple of years ago at $6 million. But trusting the board to make that sale seems foolish.

Fortunately, there is a way out. Attorney General Martha Coakley oversees nonprofits and their boards. She is said to be watching the RoxComp debacle closely.

She has the power to appoint a receiver and strip the board of its fiduciary authority. She needs to appoint that receiver today. The so-called leadership of RoxComp cannot be allowed to do any more damage to Roxbury.

Adrian Walker can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter:@Adrian_Walker.
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