Updated March 15 at 6:18 p.m.

It’s an impasse. What to do when a beloved health provider predominantly serving immigrants has serious allegations of poor patient care leveled against it, while the advocacy and legal organizations who serve as messengers won’t come to the table to talk.

East Boston Neighborhood Health Center told GBH News it sent two letters to nonprofit Centro Presente’s director Patricia Montes asking to meet and discuss the claims of at least 10 immigrant families — including one whose infant died — that they received shoddy medical care. They didn’t share the letter with GBH News, but Montes confirmed receiving it.

Advocates say they are holding the clinic’s administration at bay because they don’t want to see the health institution police itself. “We want to have a third-party institution mediate in the conversation, but before, we want to see an investigation take place,” Montes said Tuesday.

They’re also lawyering up. Centro Presente held a press conference Tuesday to announce that Lawyers for Civil Rights has joined their effort and has sent a letter to the Department of Public Health and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey demanding a joint investigation into the claims of poor patient care.

“The emerging patterns of misdiagnosis, lack of quality care, and denial of adequate services disproportionately affect several overlapping groups that are protected by law: immigrants, those who rely on MassHealth, and women,” they wrote in the letter. “For these reasons, an investigation into EBNHC’s conduct must be deliberately and intentionally conducted through the lens of Massachusetts’ civil rights laws.”

The patients are worried the poor care they recieved “was due to their race, national origin, sex, and insurance,” according to the formal investigation request.

On Tuesday, two patients also spoke about their own experiences, including a woman who only gave her name as Jasmin. The 19-year-old from Revere said she saw providers at the health center with chest pains in November 2021. They gave her an electrocardiogram and told her it came back normal, and sent her home. There was no follow-up.

She said that she was admitted into Massachusetts General Hospital in February, and was diagnosed with B-Cell lymphoma. “It’s pretty advanced,” she said. A couple days later she was admitted for surgery for an ovary removal, and has started chemotherapy since, she said.

“They could have done a follow up. I could have been diagnosed sooner,” Jasmin said.

East Boston Neighborhood Health Center said it learned of the allegations of poor patient care in a press release over a month ago and through media reports, including GBH News’ reporting.

“EBNHC requested a meeting with Centro Presente and with the identified patients to learn more about their experiences with EBNHC and discuss their concerns, but none have agreed to meet with us,” the company told GBH in a statement.

Healey’s office is reviewing the patients’ complaints and has not yet decided whether to launch an investigation.

The health center said it welcomes dialogue with “any of our patients regarding their experiences with our organization.” They’ve also reached out to the Attorney General’s office to invite a review of any allegations. The Department of Public Health said Wednesday after this article’s publication that it had received the letter and was investigating.

Healey's office plans to meet with the families involved and is in communication with Centro Presente, LCR, and East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, according to the attorney general's office.

Lawyers for civil rights at east boston neighborhood health center.jpg
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. The organization is offering free support to Centro Presente and immigrant families in their claims of bad medical care against East Boston Neighborhood Health Center.
Photo by Sarah Betancourt, GBH News.

East Boston Neighborhood Health Center is the largest community health center in Massachusetts, and has spent the past month emphasizing its deep roots serving the immigrant community.

“More than 70,000 of our patients identify as Latinx, and more than 65% of our office visits are with patients whose primary language is Spanish,” the organization said in a statement. Its Interpreter Services Department conducted more than 190,000 interpretations last year in nine different languages using its in-house interpreters alone. That service, EBNHC said through a public relations firm, is not reimbursed.

GBH News asked the organization several weeks ago about its protocol for handling patient grievances over care.

“Like many large area providers, there is a formal system for handling patient complaints, and there are multiple avenues through which EBNHC proactively solicits patient feedback, including in languages other than English,” the organization said Tuesday in a statement.

The health center says it is also launching a Patient Advocate Office soon, but it’s unclear when that will be.

“The patient advocate office was 100% in the works before this allegation and is not in response to it,” said Christine Williamson, a public relations consultant working with the health center. The health center sees the new office as part of a “strategic effort to listen to our patient voices," and it has been in the works for more than six months, she said in an email.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, told GBH News, “We are really looking forward to helping the attorney general launch a formal investigation into the incidents in East Boston.” If the AG's office does not investigate, LCR “stands ready to pursue our own legal claims against the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center,” he said.

Update: This article was updated to include a response from the Department of Public Health.