Editorial

Michigan Attorney General should investigate any breach of public trust as AFH closes

June 5, 2015
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Grand Rapids Business Journal has for more than two decades reported on the Alliance for Health, a nonprofit created and served by area business leaders to bring health care groups together to cooperate in health services for the community and provide oversight to prevent health care costs from escalating, especially in regard to duplicated services.

It is a pure West Michigan method of operation, creating partnerships to benefit the community. The agency director who took the leadership post just more than one year ago, however, abruptly announced over Memorial Day weekend the agency was closed, effective that day. The announcement and accompanying note are worthy of comment not just for the sudden closure but in regard to the public’s trust in nonprofit ethics and those who are charged with upholding them.

The announcement is especially puzzling because the Alliance mission was so well accomplished that it earned signature status as the body to make recommendations to the Michigan Department of Public Health, rather than the state deciding pertinent issues without such local representation. It also earned one of only 14 grants in the country from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest health foundation, and was given renewal and additional funds to continue its work in West Michigan through April 2015. Such large sums of money are never given without qualification tests and oversight. At the time of the initial 2007 grant, Alliance leaders called it “sobering, because if we don’t do well, the eyes of the nation are on us.”

The Alliance had earned the trust of news reporters and editors for the quality of its research and depth of background information to cover sometimes complicated health care issues. In full disclosure, this author served on its board six years ago, a seat then taken by former Grand Rapids Press Editor Paul Keep as a representative of the general public’s interest.

The Alliance also earned the trust of regional academics with representation to its board from medical education schools at Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University.

Many of the sitting board members resigned earlier this year, citing the agency’s current practices and new direction. The director, however, advised in his note of agency closure that, with the end of the RWJF grant, no funds were left, although it is the responsibility of a nonprofit leader to assure means for fundraising.

Equally puzzling, records show the agency fund balance one year ago was $80,000; initial receipts were $125,000 from the 2013 Blue Moon fundraiser for Hillman Award recipient Ralph Hauenstein, and the remaining RWJF grant funds were $250,000. It may be past time to suggest the Michigan Attorney General investigate the use of those public dollars in the last 14 months.

The purpose of any nonprofit is to provide sufficient public value to warrant tax status relief from property and sales tax. Those who serve as board members and leaders of nonprofits keep a sacred community trust.

The loss of the Alliance is as significant as the multitude of successes it provided this region but deserves comment, too, in regard to the public trust in the ethics and transparency of all nonprofit organizations and those charged with upholding them.

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