Merced County nonprofit looks to repair rift with rival

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 5, 2013 

MS A Healthy House

The Healthy House in Merced

MARCI STENBERG — Merced Sun-Star

— A dispute between the United Way of Merced County and one of its endorsed nonprofit partners, Healthy House, remains unresolved after a United Way board meeting Wednesday night.

Healthy House representatives, along with a handful of community members, voiced opposition to United Way securing a $700,000 contract that once belonged to Healthy House.

The contract between Healthy House and Mercy Medical Center was to provide the hospital with health care interpreters, also known as a language bank.

But Healthy House officials said United Way staff created a competing language bank.

"It's very detrimental to our program because we spent a dozen years developing the language bank and the training for it," said Executive Director Candice Adam-Medefind.

"The board members that we talked with said they had absolutely no knowledge of the negotiations going on or the contract that was signed before they were even told about it," she added.

United Way Board President Bob Harmon and several board members did not return calls for comment Thursday.

Healthy House held the language bank contract since 2005, Adam-Medefind said. It provided interpretation services to patients in about a dozen languages.

During Wednesday's meeting, Harmon said the United Way board could only devote a limited amount of time to discussing the issue.

"We cannot take an hour," Harmon said during the meeting. "We've already been going 20 minutes. Five more minutes. Make your comments brief so we can move on."

The board would make a decision in "closed session," he said, adding that he expected that to happen in a week or two.

United Way a business?

Healthy House board member Renee Davenport took her share of the allotted five minutes to speak out about the issue.

"What I see is you're taking away from someone you're supposed to be helping under your umbrella," Davenport said. "Is United Way supposed to be helping nonprofits in the community or is United Way a business?"

Community member John Carlisle agreed, saying the action sets a dangerous precedent.

"As a member of another board that's part of United Way, it really concerns me that this appears that United Way's policy is to cannibalize a member," Carlisle said. "I'm really concerned about United Way taking over other businesses."

No easy fix

A few United Way board members responded by saying the board has been discussing ways to resolve the issue for a while.

United Way board member Nikko Da Paz said they are hearing Healthy House's concerns, but the situation is not easy to fix.

"This (contract) was not something that was drafted by people in this room," Da Paz said. "Even though we can't share with you the process of how we're going to fix it, we are working on it."

Some officials have speculated the hospital's decision to terminate the contract with Healthy House was a cost-saving measure, but spokesman Robert McLaughlin said he could not discuss the terms of the contract.

"I don't have that contract in front of me and don't have access to that," McLaughlin said.

An everyday decision

"The contract for Healthy House was up, and we chose not to extend it and chose to go to another vendor," he added. "We make decisions on contracts every day."

Chuck Kassis, chief operating officer of Mercy Medical Center, did not return calls for comment Thursday.

Hospital staff had sent an email to Healthy House to renew its contract in April, according to documents.

There was no indication the hospital was dissatisfied with the quality of service, Adam-Medefind said.

Judy Darnell, director of public policy for United Ways of California, declined commenting on the dispute, saying each local United Way is governed on its own.

"They don't report to us in any way," Darnell said. "Each United Way is an independent organization and governed by its board."

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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