Eric Rosenthal Reports

Thoughts and observations about issues, trends, and controversies in the cancer community.

Monday, July 23, 2012

ONLINE FIRST: Y-ME Closes Suddenly -- What Happened, and Why?

The shock effect of the announcement earlier this month that Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization had suddenly shut down operations was eerily reminiscent of the closing of the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations eight years earlier -- except that NABCO’s demise was planned and orderly and Y-ME’s apparently happened without notice and without any formal contingency plans in place to serve its constituents who relied on the always-available breast cancer hotline for support and information.


According to accounts in the Chicago Sun-Times, the 34-year-old Chicago-based breast cancer organization shut its doors on July 12 citing financial difficulties, and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy several days later in the United States Bankruptcy Court’s Northern District of Illinois listing assets between $100,000 and $500,000, and debts of $500,000 to $1 million.


Much of the debt was related to leases for Y-ME’s office space in Chicago and the offices of former affiliates around the country.


The closing also prompted Illinois State Senator Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago) to call for an investigation of Y-ME by the state’s Attorney General, Lisa Madigan.


The charity, which operated a 24/7 multilingual hotline staffed by breast cancer survivors and was also known for its annual fundraising Mother's Day Race at Your Pace event, had been experiencing financial problems for many years and had changed its name from Y-ME to Breast Cancer Network of Strength in 2008, only to revert back to its original name three years later.


Ironically, although some critics thought Y-ME sounded somewhat “whiny,” its name was actually derived from the group’s early meetings at a local “Y.”


When I spoke with Y-ME’s Chief Executive Officer Cindy Geoghegan at the ASCO Annual Meeting in June, she said that the charity’s signature Mother’s Day race may have set an attendance record this year with some 30,000 participants, but raised considerably less than its projected $3.5 million goal, a devastating blow to the cash flow needed to sustain the hotline.


She attributed the downturn to confusion among donors with Susan G. Komen for the Cure and its ongoing controversy over Planned Parenthood funding, and with the recent release of the documentary “Pink Ribbons Inc.,” which took a critical look at the business behind some breast cancer-related charities.


Geoghegan was not immediately available for comment due to family-related health matters, but did agree to speak with me at length 10 days following the closing to explain what had happened and why.


However, she was limited in what she could say because she too had been fired with the rest of her staff and escorted out of the building.


Those terminated were paid through that day, did not receive severance, and had to start scrambling for health insurance by the end of the month since they were not eligible for COBRA benefits.


She said that the Board of Directors had held a special meeting the evening of Tuesday, July 10 when it voted to dissolve the advocacy organization.


A staff meeting was scheduled for 10 am on July 12 and all employees including those who had been furloughed July 1 were told they had to attend.


They were then informed by Board Chair Maureen Durack that they were “relieved of your active duties effective today, July 12,” and that the organization would cease operations immediately.


A teleconference was scheduled at 11 am for breast cancer survivors who volunteered to staff the hotline, and many were in disbelief that they could no longer provide support to others when their services were at no cost to the organization.


According to a report in the Sun Times, Geoghagen said at that time: "The Board decided, and I didn't get a vote. My goal while I was there was to sustain that 24-hour hotline, because there's nothing else like it in the world. I would have liked to keep fighting for that."


During our phone conversation she said that she had originally been hired as a consultant in July 2010 to conduct a 90-day assessment of the organization’s viability and help manage its transition following the same-day exit of its then-CEO Margaret Kirk.


“After looking at its cash flow I realized that the organization in its current state wasn’t viable and many of its services were somewhat duplicative, but I soon realized that there was nothing else comparable to the 24-hour peer support with translation services available in 150 languages,” she said, noting that there were about 40,000 calls a year from women who wanted to talk with someone who had “been there.”


She then became the de facto interim chief executive officer and was offered the permanent position February 2011. Her remaining time in office was dedicated to streamlining operations and focusing on enhancing the hotline and keeping it open.


According to Geoghagen, she spent Wednesday calling other breast cancer advocacy organizations that also had peer-to-peer counselors alerting them to the pending shutdown and asking if callers could be referred to their helplines.


But when the Board closed Y-ME the next day it also pulled the plug on its hotline and website.


I learned that the 800 number did have a recording for about six hours that mentioned Y-ME’s demise and referred callers to SHARE (866-891-2392) and Living Beyond Breast Cancer (888-753-LBBC), but then that lifeline was also terminated and callers were greeted by a busy signal.


Geoghagen and others I spoke with said numerous corporate, foundation and private donors and sponsors also contacted the organization wanting to know why they hadn’t been given the opportunity to help.


Other sources said that the organization had also discussed sending letters requesting contributions but didn’t follow through.


I tried to reach several members of the Board of Directors for additional information but they wouldn’t respond at all, wrote that they wouldn’t comment, or referred me to Board Chair Maureen Durack, who I had called earlier but never got back to me.


After requesting an interview with Board Vice Chair Gloria S. Alvarez, I inadvertently received an email from her intended for Durack, which in effect asked what she should do about the request.


The following day Alvarez wrote to me: “Sorry for my delay, I had a family emergency yesterday. I have been told that all questions now go to the Trustee in charge of the Chapter 11 and I am not to give interviews. Maureen Durack was our Chair but I am sure you have already tried to reach her. Sorry I could not be of help.”


Alvarez did not provide contact information for the Trustee and mistakenly wrote Chapter 11, which with Chapter 13 govern the reorganization process, while Chapter 7, which was filed, governs liquidation under U.S. bankruptcy laws.


Another Board member, Sharon Green, who was also Y-ME’s first Executive Director, emailed that she was traveling with her family that weekend and suggested I contact Durack. She did offer to answer questions by email in two days but did not offer to engage in an interactive telephone interview.


I did speak with a number of other individuals familiar with the situation, but most were not willing to go on the record. They did, however, mention financial troubles and expensive unsuccessful expansion efforts made several years before under former CEO Margaret Kirk.


Two former Board members were willing to be quoted, and both expressed the same disappointment that the Board did not notify them of the closing until after the fact and that the Board abandoned the organization’s mission and made no effort to continue serving the women who relied on the peer support afforded by the hotline.


Jane Perlmutter, PhD, a former Board member, longtime volunteer, and senior advisor to Y-ME shared with me the letter she sent to the Board:


“As some of you know, I am a breast cancer survivor, long-term Y-ME volunteer and ex-Board member.


“I am passionate about the Y-ME mission, and despite many financial ups and downs, know that Y-ME did a better job at meeting that mission than any other organization.


“Thus, as you may assume, I am VERY distressed by your decision to dissolve the organization.


“I recognize your fiscal responsibilities, but believe that the more important responsibility of not-for-profit boards is toward their missions.


“Having a message on our 800 number that referred callers to other organizations who might be able to provide support was, in my opinion, the very least that you could have done to serve our mission. The fact that this message is no longer available--callers simply get a busy signal—is really unconscionable and irresponsible. The ED of one of the organizations just called me to share her sympathy and indicated that they would have maintained that message. Indeed, I am sure that our volunteers would chip in to do so.  Is there any way that the message can now be restored?”


Mary Lou Smith, JD, MBA, the cofounder of Research Advocacy Network (RAN), and a former Y-ME President of the Board and Board member, also wanted to know why Y-ME’s current Board did not keep the “redirection to the other hotlines.”


“As a former Board member I was disappointed that I hadn’t been contacted about the closing because I would have wanted the opportunity to help out so the organization could stay on mission,” she said.


I spoke with Beverly J. Parker, PhD, a former hotline director and longtime volunteer who had been asked to cover the phones the morning that Y-ME closed:  “I was on the phone line and received an email saying that there would be a staff meeting and then a teleconference for phone counselors that morning. A little while after that I received a call from the hotline director giving me a heads up about the closing. I couldn’t listen to the whole teleconference because I was answering calls but Cindy Geoghagen opened the call by saying she had been fired and the organization was going out of business.”


Parker said she felt honored to have been the last phone counselor standing, but felt as if there had been a death of someone close to her, and that she just began to cry.


A number of people I spoke with also expressed hope that the hotline could somehow be restored to maintain Y-ME’s mission in practice if not in name.