Clinical Depression

Hounded by budget crises, unflattering audits, and general gripes about management, the Economic Opportunity Family Health Center circles the wagons

Criticizing Family Health Center or its administrators is not undertaken lightly. Decades of crucial contributions to the lives of Dade County's disadvantaged black residents have built up an aura of altruism that armors the agency against attacks by skeptics. But over the past year or so, employees and clients have been less reticent.

"It has been there for a purpose, and it served that purpose very well. But there comes a time when an organization loses its focus, to the point where it exists not for its clients but for its highly paid administrators," says Zeph Annakie, a former accountant at the center.

"It's a black institution, so this is not about making them look bad -- the truth has to be spoken," asserts a former Family Health Center supervisor who still works in the social-service arena and requested anonymity. "A lot of people knew there were problems going on, but it just wasn't something you talked about; a lot of people feared for their jobs. There's an underbelly there that's not cool at all. People tried to tell me and I didn't want to believe it. I came to believe it."

The boxy brown building at NW 54th Street and 22nd Avenue that serves as the Economic Opportunity Family Health Center's main office is bounded by Olinda Elementary to the north, a shady park and public housing to the south and east. Inside the center's iron-fenced compound, couples and women with their children loiter under trees and sit on stone benches, taking a cigarette break or waiting for a ride home. Inside, spotless corridors lead to waiting rooms and medical and dental offices, a lab, conference and counseling rooms. The assortment of paintings, posters, and children's artwork mounted in the hallways brightens an otherwise well worn, starkly functional interior.

This is the domain of Jessie Trice. Although her five vice presidents exercise considerable authority, Trice has the final say about almost everything within these walls. Even New Times's routine request to view the organization's annual financial report to the IRS -- which by law must be available to the public during working hours -- is denied by staffers for several days when their boss is out of town and unavailable to approve its "release" personally.

A tall, handsome woman, elegantly attired, Trice addresses her employees cordially. They respond with deferential smiles. She attentively greets waiting patients, some of whom pour out their fear and anger at the multitude of indignities and obstacles they must surmount in the course of a day -- not necessarily incidents related to their experiences at Family Health Center, just the sheer inconvenience of being poor. She promises to find out why one woman is having trouble getting food vouchers, quietly tells one of her clerks that the line of waiting patients is getting too long.

The quality of medical, dental, and psychological care at Family Health Center is generally considered excellent. Many clients have complained, though, that they are subjected to disrespectful and neglectful treatment by staffers. "I don't even deal with Family Health Center [for medical care] any more," says Patricia Jackson, a HOPWA client at the center until a caseworker told her they couldn't pay her rent and sent her to another agency. "They think because we have the virus we are very ignorant. They act like we're contagious. We sit there all day long. But we're so afraid to talk about [condescending treatment], because what can one person do?"

John Aldrich and other former staffers say they complained about rude, inattentive attitudes toward patients -- treatment that Aldrich believes has driven people to seek help from other health-care providers, thus diminishing much-needed revenues from Medicaid and insurance reimbursements. "They treated the paying patients the way they treated poor folks, and that didn't go over too well," alleges Aldrich, who left the center in 1992 but returned briefly last year for a second stint on the board of directors.

About a year ago, after HOPWA client Alton Clements realized his landlord wasn't getting paid, he began keeping a daily log of his Rube Goldberg-like efforts to get someone -- anyone -- at the center to mail in a rent check on time. The log relates a year's worth of encounters that would raise the blood pressure of the healthiest man. A brief excerpt:

"April 30, 1996: [Landlord] called me at 10:25 a.m. to tell me that he has not received the rent check for March or April '96. Here we go again. I immediately called EOFHC. The person who answered ... told me to call back around 11:00 a.m. At 11:49 I called back. A new name -- Ms. Camcel said she would pull my file and call me back today with answers. Ms. Camcel never called back. May 1, 1996: At 9:15 a.m. I called EOFHC and talked to Ms. Camcel. She told me the request for my check was sent to the financial office, and that she would check it out. She said she would call back by noon today. Ms. Camcel never called back. I didn't expect she would. At 12:51 p.m. I called Ms. Camcel. She told me she hadn't had time to call the financial office. She said she would do that now, and get back with me in an hour. She never called back.... May 15, 1996: At 6:15 p.m. I received a call from my landlord ... telling me that he has not received any EOFHC checks yet for March, April, or May '96. I couldn't believe my ears."

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