Cherry Health board on CBS staging allegations: ‘It’s painful’

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The board that oversees Cherry Health is investigating and promising transparency following allegations that the organization staged a COVID-19 testing line for a news crew filming a story that aired nationwide.

Cherry Health came under fire this week after a Project Veritas hidden camera exposé purported that video of lines for Cherry’s COVID-19 test site was staged with employees to make the site look busier than it was. The report’s segments filmed in Grand Rapids aired on “CBS This Morning” last Friday.

CBS immediately responded to the allegations from Project Veritas — a conservative organization whose tactics to expose “liberal bias” in the media have come under scrutiny — blaming Cherry Health for the flop.

Cherry Health released a statement in which its CEO denied that she directed staff to line up for the video in question. Her statement stopped short of refuting CBS’ claims and the organization didn’t respond to questions about whether someone other than the CEO directed any staging.

CBS ultimately pulled the Grand Rapids portion of its report from the network’s website.

The president of Cherry Health’s board of directors, Scott Alfree, said he is troubled by the news.

“It is painful,” Alfree told News 8 Thursday morning. “This whole thing is unfairly calling into question the core values of Cherry Health.”

Alfree said he is engaged in the situation and was planning to convene Cherry Health’s board of directors for a special meeting to address the situation.

“I have every confidence that whatever the right thing to do is to the extent corrective action is necessary, it will be done at any cost and any expense,” Alfree said. “We will get this right in the end, absolutely, without any doubt in my mind, and make it right to the community and all of our stakeholders.”

Cherry Health has been in West Michigan for 30 years with a central mission of providing health care to under-served communities. The multi-million dollar non-profit organization has some 800 employees, though recent staffing changes meant some were laid off or had their working hours and pay reduced.

The organization relies on donors to help it provide services to the community.

“There are obviously a number of stakeholder groups that we need to address in making sure we are transparent with what did happen and communicate… what the appropriate actions are to take in response and we will do that,” Alfree said.

Alfree said Cherry Health’s discussions with those depicted in the Project Veritas videos cause him to question the veracity of the details being reported. He said staffers did not know they were being recorded or that the person they were speaking to was working as part of the media.

“Many of the individuals involved with Project Veritas interactions are coming forward to say they’ve been misquoted and taken out of context,” Alfree said. “The clips have been edited in a way that was not reflective of their true comments.”

“I feel like we’re very much a pawn in a much broader game that is unfair,” he said. “To the extent that a mistake was made, it has none of the implications that are being ascribed to it.”

Alfree said the board hasn’t yet determined exactly what happened or whether Cherry Health team members were involved in any staging.

“We haven’t determined that anyone directed anybody to do anything,” Alfree said. “If that turns out to be the case, it will have been an honest mistake because Cherry Health is not in the business of making political statements about COVID-19 or any other political matter.”

“Our mission is incredibly difficult. We are underfunded always, not just during a crisis,” he continued. “We just frankly don’t have it in our DNA to do that. It’s just not what we do. We do not have time for it.”

Asked about Cherry Health’s public remarks that seem to neither fully deny or accept responsibility for the situation, Alfree said the decisions to release those statements weren’t made by the board.

“I’m not in direct control of the messaging. The board is not in direct control of whatever the messaging is that’s taking place,” he said.

Alfree said Cherry Health’s integrity is the organization’s highest concern.

“There isn’t anything more important,” he said emphatically. “To the extent that our communications aren’t as clear on that, we’ll address that immediately.”

While dealing with the public relations fallout from this situation, Cherry Health continues to serve patients in the communities it serves. Alfree said that won’t change.

“The board and all of the management team and all of our team members will be undeterred in what we do every day, starting now, to continue to meet the needs of our community — needs that are met by no one else,” Alfree said. “That’s what the spirit of the organization is, always was, and always will be not withstanding this incident.”

“We’re going to get to the bottom of it. There will be accountability… whatever actions are appropriate to take will be taken,” Alfree said. “We take this seriously. We take everything seriously. We are getting to the bottom of this, providing our required oversight, and we will take corrective action to the extent it’s mandated.”

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