Damakant Jayshi

Several residents and Marathon County supervisors on Wednesday pushed back against what they said was an attempt by an unaccredited agency to assume some of the services offered by the Health Department’s pregnancy and reproductive health related programs.

They also opposed reducing the funding for the program, Nurse Family Partnership and replacing it with Hope Life Center which they viewed as a religious organization not trained or skilled to offer the services related to the women and children of the community. However, Hope Life Center’s Executive Director, Jack Hoogendyk, rejected that characterization.

Speaking during the public hearing on budget at the county’s Human Resources, Finance and Property Committee, the resident said the services provided by the program is an evidence-based initiative that helped first-time mothers and babies. The NFP is a new version of the county’s existing Start Right program.

Kay Gruling, a long time family physician in the county said she was impressed with and able to depend on the Marathon County Health Department’s Start Right program, among others.

“Hope Life Center is a privately funded organization whose mission states, ‘Our mission at Hope Life Center is to reach the community with the gospel of Jesus Christ…’” Dr. Gruling said. “This is not the mission statement of an organization whose priority is health and healthcare.”

She also questioned the educational background and training of the “advocates” that Hope Life Center’s Hoogendyk, who is also chair of the Republican Party of Marathon County, mentioned. The doctor said the staff the “advocates” are “not RN BSN nurses as he states they provide ‘medical services’ and questioned whether they provide evidence-based health care.

Two other residents, Christine Salm and Christine Martens, said Hope Life Center is a religious organization. Martens said a reference to gospel has been recently scrubbed from its website. Salm said that Hope Life Center provides resources to people only if they take part in the religious services offered by the organization. Another resident, Leann Isham-Her, said Hope Life Center does not provide the health services it claims to provide.

Some residents allege that Hope Life Center claims to be a reproductive resource but instead what it does is persuade women not to have abortions. One of their programs is Deeper Still which is offered as retreat to those touched by “pregnancy losses through abortion.”

Hoogendyk said the assertions were “unfounded and totally inaccurate” and “being made by apparently ignorant individuals.” He said Hope Life Center is a healthcare facility, providing limited health care services like “pregnancy testing and diagnosis, limited STD testing and treatment and limited OB ultrasound exams.”

“We do not perform or refer for abortion,” Hoogendyk told Wausau Pilot & Review. “The term ‘reproductive health services’ can mean any number of things. In today’s common usage, this term is typically used to describe abortion.” Some residents have alleged it does not provide reproductive health services.

Hoogendyk said they also offer “spiritual support with each client as they allow.” He added that the organization is equipped to provide services, saying they currently have four BSN registered nurses who work under a medical director who is a pediatrician.

Hoogendyk rejected the claims that Hope Life Center is a religious nonprofit and offers resources only to those who participate in religious services. “They are both patently false,” he said. “We are a non-profit healthcare provider that is faith-based in that we offer each client information about the God who loves them and cares about their future.”

When asked about the accreditation, a concern raised by a supervisor, he said Hope has never pursued “accreditation” from the Nurse Family Partnership. “You can talk about accreditation, but what counts is whether we are providing quality services that align with the stated goals. This, we do.”

Before last week’s meeting of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors, Hoogendyk sent them a note comparing Start Right and Hope Life Center’s services. In his note and at the meeting on Thursday, he said their services are offered at a much lower cost than what NFP requires.

“There is no tax levy needed,” he wrote in his note. “Hope would be happy to discuss with the county ways in which it could provide the services of First Steps to the county at a greatly reduced cost in tax levy dollars.” When asked to elaborate, Hoogendyk said if the county were to discontinue Start Right and/or NFP, there would be a health care provider in Marathon County that could provide those same services at no cost to the taxpayer. “I made it clear at the recent budget hearing that Hope is not asking for anything from the county. We are only making it known that the services the county would provide to 50 families at $775,000 could be provided by Hope.”

Some supervisors seemed receptive to that idea during the discussion last week. Most of them were endorsed by the Marathon County’s Republica Party. One of them, Tim Sondelski, proposed amendment to drastically reduce the budget for NFP. His amendment, No. 12 proposes a cut of $766,507 in the Health Department budget for the Nurse Family Partnership Program. While the amendment was rejected by the HRFP Committee on Wednesday, it is likely to be discussed at the County Board meeting on Thursday.