Allegations of embezzlement at Muskegon Co. clinic

Muskegon County

MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan State Police say they have been asked to look into allegations of embezzlement at a health clinic in Muskegon Heights that will close at the end of next month.

MSP said none of the claims would have directly impacted patient care at Muskegon Family Care. It added the investigation is still in its “preliminary stages.” No charges have been filed.

“Why are there no charges?” former clinic employee Bridget Harwood wondered. “This has been months, years that this has been going on.”

Federal audits had found problems with accounting and procedures for the last decade, but it wasn’t until November that employees say that former CEO Shelia Bridges was ousted and replaced.

Bridges, a self-published author who said she was also a mentor to other women around the country, was paid more than $461,000 in 2018.

No one answered the door at her Spring Lake home Monday when News 8 went seeking comment.

The office of U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, said over the weekend that it learned of “allegations detailing gross abuse of taxpayer dollars and corruption” at the clinic more than a year ago and that it had passed those allegations along to the proper authorities.

SKELETON CREW FOR NEXT SIX WEEKS

Though patients said they were told last week that Muskegon Family Care was closing Friday, the clinic posted Monday on its Facebook page that it will remain open until March 31. It said there was confusion about the closure after it terminated employees due to “complicated financial troubles.”

“Our focus today and for the next several weeks will be on helping our patients find a new health care home to ensure continuity of care,” said MFC Board President Kathy Hayes in a statement.

“We regret the worry this caused our patients, and we sincerely apologize for the misunderstanding,” Interim Chief Executive Officer Mitze Alexander added.

Bridget Harwood told News 8 she worked at Muskegon Family Care for more than four years, most recently as the critical care coordinator, helping make sure that patients get the help they need whether that be at the clinic or elsewhere.

She said there had long been signs that things were going wrong, but the announcement of the closure still “blindsided” her and her fellow employees.

“It’s heart-wrenching. Many times over the weekend, I’ve cried,” she said.

She said the clinic had about 200 workers. On Friday, they were told most were being laid off right away and only 30% would remain to help find other resources for patients.

Harwood said she was told she would be part of the skeleton crew. But when she arrived at work Monday, she was handed a note that said it was her last day.

“I’m worried for a lot of the patients because they were our family. We did have that close connection with a lot of them and now they don’t have that,” she said. “Where are they going to go now to get that?”

EX-EMPLOYEE: FEW OPTIONS FOR PATIENTS

The nonprofit clinic provides medical, dental and pharmacy services to about 20,000 patients. The majority of receive state or federal health care assistance and nearly 80% are from low-income households.

On Saturday afternoon, a few dozen people gathered for a rally outside the clinic at the corner of E. Hackley Avenue and S. Getty Street, calling on elected officials at the local and state levels to get involved.

“There are some in the community who want to see that facility remain open. I want it to remain open,” state Rep. Terry Sabo, D-Muskegon, told News 8 Monday.

He said officials are looking into what can be done.

“The No. 1 issue is to make sure that these patients have the health care that they need to have going forward,” he said.

HealthWest says it will work to help provide former Muskegon Family Care patients with mental health care and substance abuse services. Anyone who needs help can call 231.720.3200 and note that they are a MFC patient.

“The announced closure of Muskegon Family Care is devastating to our community,” said HealthWest Executive Director Julia Rupp said in a Tuesday statement. “We want those receiving mental health or substance use services from Muskegon Family Care to know that HealthWest is here and will do whatever we can to assist them through this transition.”

Harwood, the former employee, said there is only one other federally funded health clinic in the county and it will not be able to absorb so many new patients.

“Fifty percent of these patients, they are going to fall through the cracks and it’s sad because we don’t have enough services in Muskegon County to pick up the slack,” Harwood said. “There’s one individual that I can think of right off the top of my head, I don’t know what this patient is going to do. He needed us.”

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