With Wellness Center of Door County Closed, Patients Turn Elsewhere

It’s not just the clinical services Karen Peterson will miss about the Wellness Center – it’s the care.

“I felt like they really cared about me as a person,” Peterson said. “I was never hurried through. I always thought they were very concerned about all aspects of my health, which I didn’t always get from other healthcare providers.”

“I felt like they really cared about me as a person,” said Karen Peterson. “I was never hurried through.”

The Wellness Center, a non-profit health clinic in Sturgeon Bay that provided family planning and reproductive and primary care, closed indefinitely on March 14.

Peterson started going to the Wellness Center years ago when cost limited her options and continued even when she had an insurance plan and her own business. She never intended to look for another doctor, but now she might have to.

Few details are available about the Wellness Center’s closing, but two struggles well-known to non-profits are the root: money and staff.

The clinic recently moved to a bigger building, which stressed its finances. The new space allowed it to add a nurse practitioner, see more patients and expand the practice, but it wasn’t an easy project.

In January, one of the Wellness Center’s nurse practitioners, Michele Geiger-Bronsky, who also served as chief clinical officer, resigned. While the Wellness Center chief operating officer was looking for a replacement the other nurse practitioner moved to a new clinic.

“After the second [nurse practitioner] had finished her time, we thought we had a new person coming in and there were some challenges with that,” said Jennifer Moeller, Wellness Center board president. “That fell through. We had planned on a continuation of care and that didn’t work out…It’s not easy to plug in a nurse practitioner [due to a variety of insurance and licensing requirements].”

On March 7, the Wellness Center announced on its Facebook page that the clinic was closed for “the purpose of reorganization,” and said on March 14 it was closed indefinitely.

Patients like Peterson are waiting for news.

“I’m sure that there are very good reasons that they haven’t said why this happened or what the next plan is,” Peterson said. “I’m sure there are important reasons. I guess that’s kind of where my faith is with them. We’ll know when they know, and we’ll know what we need to know.”

Mike Vaughn, state family planning consultant, said since the Wellness Center is not providing services, the Wellness Center is no longer eligible for the five-year grant from the state that typically offsets 15 to 25 percent of a family planning clinic’s operating funds.

“The reason why the funding discontinued is because they discontinued services,” Vaughn said. “If they were operating today as they were the day before they stopped services, they would still be receiving the grant support that they did before.”

Although the clinic isn’t seeing patients, Moeller said staff is working limited hours to transfer medical records and deliver outstanding test results.

“I was upset to read a reference that suggested that the Wellness Center, I think the word was ‘abandoned,’ clients,” said clinic board president Jennifer Moeller.

“I was upset to read a reference that suggested that the Wellness Center, I think the word was ‘abandoned,’ clients,” Moeller said. “There were staff members coming in after the temporary closure to make sure there was the necessary follow-up and the transition for patients transitioning over to other facilities.”

Still, many patients and employees are frustrated by the lack of information given about the circumstances.

“I’m angry,” said Jeanne Kuhns, former Wellness Center employee. “I’m sad. I’m not happy with the communication with our patients at this point. Any information that we’re giving out to the community has been late and too little.”

The Wellness Center has not announced a reopening date, and also hasn’t announced if it’s permanently closed. Kuhns, who worked at the Wellness Center for nine years and called it her best job ever, said clinic employees are looking for jobs elsewhere.

“I was told it was closed, and I am working somewhere else because of that,” Kuhns said. “I want my patients to know that because it’s important that they get something set up so they can be cared for.”

Other Options

Confusion over what will happen next leaves many in Door County, especially uninsured and low-income women, wondering where they can go.

Rhonda Kolberg, head of the Door County Public Health Department, said that while the Wellness Center made it easy for people to sign up for financial assistance programs, it isn’t the only option. Private clinics have income-based programs, and people can enroll in public programs such as Wisconsin Well Woman and BadgerCare Family Planning through the health department. (See sidebar for more information.)

On March 22, the Community Clinic of Door County (CCDC), a non-profit clinic that specializes in primary care, announced plans in a press release to develop a “full service family planning and reproductive health program at the clinic.”

“They have bravely taken on the family planning portion of what we did at the Wellness Center and they’re scrambling without funding to take care of these patients,” said Kuhns, who is now working at the CCDC.

Kolberg said the county health department is working with the CCDC to get family planning services started. The CCDC got help from the state to train staff on reproductive health and build their program, but it hasn’t received a grant like the Wellness Center’s.

According to Vaughn, the CCDC likely won’t get such a grant soon. Family planning funding is in the middle of a grant cycle, and the state hasn’t passed its final budget for the next two years. Future funding is too uncertain to start new grant contracts.

“Unfortunately, because we provide such a small amount of a total operating budget, we don’t have the resources to grow startups,” Vaughn said.

Even when the CCDC gets a family planning program off the ground, it won’t be able to service all former Wellness Center patients. The CCDC only takes uninsured patients or those under BadgerCare Family Planning.

That leaves Kuhns and Peterson worried about those who fall through the cracks, because even if the services are provided elsewhere, it’s unlikely the care will be the same.

“I worry more for the people who are uninsured, or maybe the teenagers or something,” Peterson said. “[The Wellness Center] was such a nonjudgmental, open ‘we care about you and your health’ kind of place…If somebody isn’t sure how they can afford something or feels intimidated talking to somebody and the Wellness Center was their place, are they going to do it or are they going to let something slide?”

To retrieve medical records from the Wellness Center, email [email protected]

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