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MSU started a $10 million therapy fund for Nassar victims. Here's how that's going.

Rachael Denhollander and her husband
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

Update, Sept. 10, 2018:

Michigan State University has frozen the Healing Assistance Fund while a fraudulent claim is investigated. 

The university says it will reopen the fund when the investigation is complete, but when that will happen is unknown.

In the meantime, victims and their family members have lost access to the money that was set up to help them deal with the trauma of abuse.

Original story, March 14, 2018:  

Melody Posthuma spent a lot of money on therapy over the last year and a half.

“I have to be really strict about what we were spending our money on, because we needed to know that I had enough to go to counseling,” the 22-year-old Grand Rapids resident says.

Between finishing college and paying for their wedding, she and her husband kept a tight budget and took a loan from her parents to afford her therapy.

That money wasn’t easy for her parents to lend, Posthuma says, and it put a strain on their relationship. But still, she says, treatment was a priority.  

“It’s just like eating a meal: I need to go. Like, I need to eat a meal every morning, afternoon and evening, and I need to go to counseling every week.”

Posthuma says she’s one of more than 200 victims of Larry Nassar, the former Olympic gymnastics and Michigan State University sports doctor recently convicted of sexually abusing patients under the guise of treatment.

For her, the abuse began when she was a 13-year-old dancer, she says, and continued until she was 19. When the news about Nassar’s abuse came out in September 2016, Posthuma knew she needed help from a mental health professional. 

So when her attorney told her about MSU’s $10 million “healing assistance fund,” it was like a godsend. “I was over the moon,” Posthuma says.  

Want to use the Healing Assistance fund? First, call Bernie in Boston

If you’ve never heard of this fund before, you’re not alone. MSU announced its creation in December, promising it would “help facilitate access to counseling and mental health services for the victims of former MSU physician Larry Nassar.”

Credit Michigan State University
MSU's website outlining the school's response to the Larry Nassar sexual abuse crisis.

The school’s added a one-page rundownabout the fund to its “Our Commitment” website, listing a Minnesota-based, 24-hour-hotline for Nassar’s victims to call if they need a referral to a counselor in their area.

And if they want to actually get reimbursed for therapy, then the website tells them to call a guy in Boston named Bernie Fitzgerald.

“Certainly it’s confusing for them,” says Fitzgerald, who works with Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation, Inc. The Massachusetts firm has been hired by MSU, at $700 an hour plus a $7,000 retainer fee, to administer this fund. “A lot of them have been tentative as to taking that first step,” Fitzgerald says of survivors.

“’Who’s this unknown person, and how do I call?’ But you know, the phone calls to me, they’re not revealing anything, they’re not talking about their experience or anything. They’re just saying, ‘I am part of this group, how do I proceed?’ And I try to make it as seamless as possible to arrange for the fund to reimburse them.”

At last count, only about 50 women and girls have actually reached out to the fund’s administrators, though Fitzgerald’s colleagues wouldn’t say how much money has actually been disbursed.

“I called Bernie the first hour the fund became available,” Posthuma laughs. “I was going to get aaaall my money back for all of those bills.”

Send in your therapy receipts, get a check in the mail

Despite the inherent awkwardness in cold-calling a stranger in Boston to ask for money for therapy, Posthuma says the whole process has been pretty straightforward.

She sent Fitzgerald the receipts and invoices she’d received for therapy, and a few days later, she got a check in the mail.

Alexis Alvarado
Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Alexis Alvarado addresses Larry Nassar at his criminal sentencing in Ingham County Circuit Court. Alvarado was hesitant about using MSU's fund at first. "It seemed too good to be true, right?"

Suddenly, she could help her parents out with their medical bills.

“It was really great to send them that money,” Posthuma says. “And I know they were almost incredulous on the phone when I said, ‘You’re going to get a couple thousand dollars sent for me in a week.’”

Things went well for Alexis Alvarado, too. She’s also a survivor of Nassar’s abuse, and as 19-year-old college sophomore, money for counseling has been tight.

“I actually even had bills from 2015 that I still hadn’t paid, because it was so high,” she says. “I would worry so much about how I was going to pay [my counselor.] I was like, ‘I’m just going to stop coming until I can get the money together,’ and she was like, 'No, you need to keep coming.'”

Alvarado hadn’t even heard of the Healing Assistance Fund until during Nassar’s criminal sentencings last month, when an MSU police detective told her about it. So she called Fitzgerald.

“It was just really awkward,” she laughs. “[But] he’s really nice, he’s like ‘All you have to do is just get your receipts and email them to me and then I’ll send you a check.…’ He didn’t pry or anything, didn’t ask questions.”

When she got a check in the mail a few days later, Alvarado says she was stunned. “I got them and I was like, at first, I really didn’t know what to do, I guess! I mean, it was a check! I waited a couple days before depositing them…. I finally like paid it all off and everything total was probably $4,000.”

So what does this fund cover, exactly, and who can use it?

Even those who are using the fund, like Melody Posthuma, still run into questions and confusion: Will this fund cover less straightforward therapy expenses, like her assistance dog or the holistic treatments her therapist has been recommending?

Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
MSU says the fund is for Nassar's victims and their parents. But the administrators running the fund say it's broader than that.

While Fitzgerald says he can’t get into details of an individual case, he says they’ll lean toward covering any treatment a mental health professional recommends.

“At this point we’re still in the infancy stages of seeing what possibilities are out there,” he says. “So I don’t want to say, ‘No it’s not covered,’ because chances are, it will be, whatever it is.

"We don’t want to open it up to the world to say, anybody who’s feeling bad [can be covered by the fund.] …But remember, these people have experienced trauma due to an interaction with Dr. Nassar. So we’re not in their mind, so we don’t know what helps and what doesn’t.”

If there is a question about covering a treatment that’s outside the norm, Fitzgerald says he’ll discuss it with his colleagues, and possibly MSU. “We’re administering the fund, but obviously it’s not our money, so decisions as to what it’s being spent on, if there is question certainly we’d bounce it off them.”

As for who’s covered by the fund, MSU has “compiled a list of individuals potentially eligible for reimbursement based on student-athlete rosters and health team records,” says Heather Swain, MSU’s VP for Communications and Brand Strategy.

That list has been provided to Fitzgerald and his teammates. “If an individual is not on that list, the fund administrator will talk through background with the survivor,” Swain says in an email. “[The] fund administrator will convey the facts and circumstances on a no-name basis to MSU and a decision is made on eligibility.”

Melody Posthuma and her therapy dog, Beacon.
Credit Melody Posthuma
Melody Posthuma and her therapy dog, Beacon. Holistic treatments and therapy dogs are covered by the fund, says to Bernie Fitzgerald.

But while MSU’s website and its contract with Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation Inc. says the fund is available to Nassar’s victims and their parents, Bernie Fitzgerald says they’ll also cover, say, a spouse’s therapy.

Melody Posthuma says while she hasn’t yet been able to talk her parents into getting counseling, her husband has been able to be reimbursed. And Fitzgerald says it’s covered, so long as a mental health professional says that spouse has been emotionally affected by their partner’s abuse and would benefit from therapy. “Absolutely,” he says. “If the mental health professional defined it as such, then yes.”

Still, victims and their attorneys don’t trust MSU

Despite the benefits, Posthuma says it’s a relief not to have to work directly with an MSU administrator to access this fund. “The thing that I like about this fund is that Bernie is not affiliated with MSU, and I really don’t feel like dealing with anyone affiliated with MSU at this time, to be honest,” she says. “So it’s kind of perfect that I’m talking to a third party that’s handling the finances. And while the checks say MSU, it’s Bernie signing them.”

“It’s definitely worth it,” Alexis Alvarado says, adding that she encourages other victims who reach out to her to use the fund. “I mean, they are in this situation because of MSU. And I understand that it can be hard to trust them like this again. But it’s worth it.”

Alvarado’s attorney, Mick Grewal, says he cautioned his clients against using the fund until he’d been able to meet with MSU directly and make sure victims wouldn’t have to sign a waiver releasing MSU of liability for their abuse in order to use the fund.

Once he had, Alvarado says, she felt more comfortable. “It seemed like too good to be true, right?”

But others say it still may be.

“This wasn’t a fund designed to benefit the victims,” says attorney John Manly, who represents numerous Nassar victims in the civil lawsuits against MSU. “It was a fund designed to give Michigan State public relations cover.”

One thing Manly’s particularly worried about is the fund’s confidentiality – that MSU won’t access or use these women’s personal information against them in the civil case.

Bernie Fitzgerald and his team promise that all information is confidential, and MSU says the same thing on its website. Still, Manly’s skeptical.

“Look, I’d be an idiot to trust MSU on the issue of sexual abuse. Anybody would. It’s the one institution that no one in the country should trust its word when it comes to sexual abuse,” he says. “And if they say, well it’s on our website, well yeah, Volkswagen had on its website that its diesel was clean.”

For now, Manly recommends his clients get help for therapy bills elsewhere: either though victim assistance funds provided by the courts, or funds that have been privately raised to support Nassar’s victims.

“We have women [clients in this case] who ... have psychogenic seizures and can't work or go to school... I want these women to access this money, and I think it’s important. But you know, I also know that there are [MSU] board members who called these women names, suggested they were ambulance chaser, have bad-mouthed them, and at the same they say they’re trying to help these women, they’re try to dismiss all their [civil] cases.”

For Posthuma, having these therapy bills covered is a relief, but it doesn’t mean she’s ready to let MSU off the hook.

The trauma she experienced will always be a part of her story, she says. And sometimes just managing it feels like a full-time job, between counseling, treatments and dealing with the criminal and civil cases. The same day she attended Nassar’s emotionally draining criminal sentencing, she had to make sure she was back at work in time to teach a three hour dance class, she says. Bills still need to get paid.   

“This is just the starting grounds for what really needs to happen regarding MSU’s involvement in compensating any of this trauma financially,” she says. “Unfortunately, they can’t take back the trauma.”

If you want more information about accessing treatment or financial help through Michigan State University's Healing Assistance Fund, you can go here to get that info online, or call a 24 hour hotline at  (866) 407-1240 to be connected to a provider in your area. 

Correction: this story has been corrected to reflect Heather Swain's correct name. An earlier typo listed her name as "Heath Swain." 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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