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Open Door may close amid staff firings, possible loss of funds
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2020-04-04

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Open Door Health Center of Illinois ( formerly Open Door Clinic ) is teetering on the brink of closure due to financial issues, according to current and former staff members.

The organization's mission, according to its website, "is a regional, patient-centered health care organization that provides services including education, prevention, diagnosis and treatment services to those who have or are at risk for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, in addition to the greater LGBTQ community."

Open Door has locations in Aurora, DeKalb, Elgin, Joliet and West Chicago and serves residents in DuPage, Kane and suburban Cook counties. This includes both healthcare and housing assistance.

The agency has been contending with financial difficulties and high turnover rates for about two years. Officials have attributed recent decisions to the COVID-19 outbreak, but current and former staff members allege that Open Door's problems started much earlier.

When more than 20 staff members, clients and funders arrived at the February board meeting, no board members were present. They were going to talk to the board about how grant funds have been allocated in the months prior to this scheduled meeting. Now some of these stakeholders are speaking out about what has transpired at the non-profit agency since that aborted meeting.

Former Facilities Manager Lynne Kennedy told Windy City Times that she and her sister, Carol Winters, who was Open Door's accounts payable manager, were fired March 27 via a phone call, after 12 years at the agency.

Kennedy said Interim Executive Director Dr. Zeba Geloo, who was first hired as the medical director in May 2019, called both her and her sister within 15 minutes of each other; both were told Business Operations Director and former Board President La Juan Baines and Jackie Throop from HR Source were in the room with Geloo.

Kennedy said Geloo told her that her entire department was being eliminated to save the clinic. Kennedy added that neither she nor her sister were offered a chance to come back to the building to retrieve their personal belongings.

Four others were fired that day, including Marketing and Communications Manager Jacob Harshbarger, and three were given reduced hours, according to Kennedy, who alleged that, to her knowledge, Geloo and Baines have done nothing to increase income for the agency since they assumed these leadership positions.

Harshbarger told Windy City Times that a number of board members and the board president have resigned since that aborted board meeting, leaving the board without a quorum. He also said that current executives at Open Door lack sufficient experience to address the agency's various issues.

"Because of this, both clients and employees are suffering and are in jeopardy of major deficits in healthcare and their livelihoods," said Harshbarger. "Our clients are not only challenged with managing their notably extraordinary health conditions but also face acute sensitivity to COVID-19. The possible closure of our clinic adds an exaggerated level of anxiety for all parties involved.

"Over the course of the last year, I have struggled with my health, leading me to require medical leave. I applied and was approved for medical leave that was scheduled to start on March 30 due to a brain tumor diagnosis. Instead of keeping me on the payroll while I was on medical leave, I was let go from my position March 27, right before my medical leave was to take effect. Now I have to contend with unemployment and more expensive COBRA coverage to deal with my medical issues."

Kennedy told Windy City Times that Baines told the staff on Nov. 13, 2019, that the previous executive director had stepped down and Geloo would be the new interim executive director. This despite the fact that succession plans stated that the assistant director would take over if the executive director left.

"At the start of the meeting, Baines announces, 'If anyone does not like this, they can pack their bags.' said Kennedy in her statement to Windy City Times. "People, of course are outraged and confused."

When Windy City Times reached out to Geloo asking why she fired these six staffers, she emailed, "You may be aware that 3.3 million people have been fired due to the consequences of COVID which includes some of our staff."

The turmoil at the agency is potentially imperiling rental payments being made for their clients, staffers say.

"I have been the Housing Program Coordinator at Open Door since August, 2016," said Jena Brauer. "Since January, I have been unable to get access to the funds needed to continue running the housing program per our grant responsibilities. In January, rent for our DuPage County program participants were paid late. The late fees that accrued as a result were not paid until the end of February, despite my team's constant attempts to have the payments approved by the director of business operations.

"Other agency expenses continue to be paid late or not at all. With the announcement of delayed evictions as a result of COVID-19, the director of business operations has asked that I call landlords and inform them that rents for April will not be paid. I have provided clarification regarding the continued requirements to pay rent on time and abide by all lease terms; however I have been dismissed."

Brauer also told Windy City Times that, in the past four months, 14 employees have resigned and six key positions were eliminated, with four of those individuals especially needing healthcare coverage— Harshbarger for his brain surgery, two elders at high risk for COVID-19 and Yvonne Viesca who was on FMLA mourning the recent death of her child.

Additionally, Open Door Client Advisory Committee Chairperson Louis Hobson said in an email statement to Windy City Times, "The HIV clinics in the Chicago area, including Open Door, are part of a new system called the Patient Centered Medical Home ( PCMH ). In this system there are essential services that must be provided to be a PCMH. If you do not have all of these components then you risk losing funding for the rest of the services. At this time, Open Door is missing mental and oral health. These two services rank right behind medical services. I believe that clients are entitled to quality healthcare. The service at Open Door has become unacceptable and needs to be corrected."

"This is so sad for our 1,500 clients, their families and our dedicated staff," said Kennedy. "Power without knowledge or compassion as well as not including the team has lead to failure at Open Door. Teamwork starts from the top."

"My concern is that this time of crisis is being leveraged to put off essential operating expenses and let valuable employees go, while contractors and leadership continue to collect high salaries that are not supported by their outcomes for the agency," said Brauer.

"I have been working as a Ryan White medical case manager for 10 years," said current Elgin location case manager Jay Bowling. "I love what I do, and love working with others who are passionate about the important work that we do. The last five months have been wrought with worry for my clients and myself. I worry that we will not be able to provide the services that our patients/clients so desperately need, and that at any moment, I may not have a job. It appears that the incompetence and arrogance of the new leadership will destroy Open Door and that the vulnerable patients and dedicated staff will be the ones who pay the price."

"No one should lose their housing assistance money because an agency goes out of business," said HIV Housing Task Force Co-Chair and former Open Door Clinic housing client Roy Ferguson.

Kennedy contacted the Illinois Attorney General's office last November after the shift in management. Kennedy and other former staffers filed a complaint alleging that Open Door is in violation of their grants because board members are not in compliance with mandatory e-learning that is required by the organizations grantors.

"This is an ongoing matter and we are continuing to look into it," emailed Illinois Attorney General spokesperson Tori Joseph to Windy City Times.

Windy City Times asked Geloo in an email why the housing program staffers are unable to access funds so they can pay the clients' rent like they always have in the past; whether she was taking a pay cut during this pandemic like other corporate and non-profit leaders have done; how the agency can continue to run properly when 20 people are no longer working there because they were fired or resigned; and her thoughts about allegations that grant funders are threatening to pull their money due to what has been happening at Open Door in recent months. Geloo declined to comment.

Baines did not return a request for comment for this story.


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