A longtime Roxbury health clinic was cast into receivership Friday after being shut down for unsafe patient care and dysfunctional management, the first time in recent memory the state has taken control of a community health center.
Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center, a neighborhood mainstay for more than four decades, had come under intense scrutiny from health regulators over the past year amid growing concerns about its finances and daily operations. Two weeks ago, the clinic, familiarly known as RoxComp, surrendered its license and fired its employees.
The receiver will conduct an audit to determine if money was misappropriated and what drove the center to effective collapse, officials said.
“There just seemed to be a series of events that put it in a death spiral that it couldn’t pull out of,” said Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general, in a phone interview.
She said that after meeting with the chairman of the center’s board, Keith Crawford, earlier this week, it was clear that the center could no longer operate independently.
“Dr. Crawford did not seem to be able to articulate any kind of plan that could revive that institution,” Coakley said. “It became necessary to mitigate the damage, make sure the patients were cared for, and do what’s best for the building and the institution.”
Her office could not even obtain a current list of board members, Coakley said.
Crawford could not be reached for comment Friday, and no one represented the health center at a court hearing in Boston Friday, where a Superior Court judge granted the state’s request for receivership.
Joseph Feaster Jr., a Boston lawyer with extensive experience with community health centers, was appointed as receiver. At the hearing, Feaster said his top priority was helping patients with the transition to other medical facilities.
“First and foremost, we have to address the patient care issue,” he said.
In its complaint, the attorney general’s office, which oversees nonprofits, stated that the center had failed to notify its nearly 4,000 patients that it was closing, or offer them transfers to other providers.
The Warren Street facility provided primary care, dental, mental health, and substance abuse services, largely to low-income residents.
In March, state health officials learned that a number of behavioral health patients had chosen not to transfer because they believed the center would soon reopen. Many of these patients were prescribed psychiatric medication.
Christopher Barry-Smith, deputy attorney general, said the center faces a host of financial issues. It owes its employees thousands of dollars in wages and has not paid its creditors.
Auditors will seek to determine the center’s assets and liabilities and identify the source of the financial disarray.
“Sooner or later, the Commonwealth will have answers as to what led to this,” Barry-Smith said.
The attorney general’s office said it was too early to say whether criminal charges would be brought.
Coakley said the center apparently had operated without functioning management for some time. During a January visit, state health care regulators found a “breakdown in the center’s administrative, clinical, and financial systems” that had led to vendors canceling medical waste disposal services.
When the center failed to make the necessary improvements, it was asked to surrender its license.
That followed a year of inspections that found progressively deteriorating conditions. First, regulators shut down the center’s laboratory, citing “serious, unsafe patient care practices,” and later it ordered the center to suspend dental services.
In December, regulators found “severe dysfunction with the center’s administrative, financial, and management functions,” and that the center was not in compliance with 14 of 19 program requirements.
James Hunt Jr., president of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, said it was sad to see the loss of “such an important resource.”
“Fortunately, there are other robust health centers in the area that have already stepped up to provide care to these patients,” he said. “Over the long run, we believe this community will need more locally accessible health care services, and we will continue to support the process for getting those resources back into the neighborhood.”
Coakley said the chances that the center could reopen under its former leadership were practically nil. But she said alternatives, such as a partnership with another nonprofit or for-profit entity — could be feasible.
“Certainly one good possibility is reestablishing a board and a board chair that would get the center up and functioning again,” Coakley said. “To many in the community, that would be the best and highest use of the building and the property.”