Health department employees describe investigations, problems

Employees say Fayette agency being investigated

jhewlett@herald-leader.comFebruary 21, 2011 

Employees of the agency that provides medical care for Lexington's poor on Sunday described a department in chaos that is apparently being investigated by several state and federal agencies.

At an emergency meeting of the board of Lexington Primary Care Center, part of the city's health department, employees said that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Kentucky Board of Pharmacy have launched investigations, that resources are being misused and that a hostile work environment exists.

The tension-filled meeting at the Tates Creek Branch of the Lexington Public Library came just two days after health department officials confirmed that an $11.7 million federal grant to build a new health center is at risk.

Rashaun West, who resigned a few days ago as an assistant at the center's pharmacy, said during a break in the meeting that investigators for the DEA and the state's Office of Inspector General have been at the center numerous times in the past year.

The DEA has been investigating the disappearance of drugs and fraudulent prescriptions, he said.

Dr. Melinda Rowe, commissioner of the health department, said that, to her knowledge, there is no DEA investigation but there is a state OIG investigation.

She said that the state investigation began in March after anonymous complaints and that she has not received a report from investigators.

A DEA spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Several employees of the center, including physicians, told members of the Primary Care Governing Council that they are stunned and angered about what has been going on at the health department. Some of them said they will resign if things don't change.

"Our patients are among the most vulnerable in the community," said an emotional Dr. William Dake, a family practitioner at the center since 1993. He asked where those people would go for care if the center's doors close.

Caregivers who have stayed at the center are committed to their patients and have "gritted their teeth, swallowed their pride" and come into work despite problems, Dake said.

Dr. Deborah Stanley, medical director of the primary care center, said: "We work in a clinic that runs inefficiently and ineffectively."

She said clinic employees are "dusting off their résumés" and looking elsewhere for jobs.

"We cannot work in an organization where there's deception and dishonesty," she added, her voice wavering.

"We've got people under investigation by the DEA who still have jobs here," said Dr. Andrea Galloway, an obstetrician-gynecologist.

Galloway said she has no "chaperones" to be with her when patients are being examined, which goes against professional guidelines.

"I do a lot of procedures. I can't do these alone," she said.

She also said that she's required to take care of health department employees and that she no longer can continue doing so. She said one supervisor, angry that she had to check in at the clinic, stalked her.

"I cannot continue to work in an environment like this," Galloway said. "We are setting ourselves up for bad things."

Galloway said there is a lackadaisical attitude prevalent at the health department, with some employees talking about how drunk they got over the weekend or getting on Facebook when they should be directing their attention to patients.

Several people at Sunday's meeting expressed concern about the status of William North, the center's executive director since October, who apparently had been on leave from his job. Some employees said North had been suspended from his job.

Galloway said it was upsetting to all of a sudden not see North at work.

The council, in a closed session Sunday, voted to keep North. When the board announced that decision, employees at the meeting applauded.

Rowe said she was hearing some of the complaints for the first time at Sunday's meeting.

"Obviously, I take all the comments seriously," she said. "We've got plenty of work to do."

Richard Moloney, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray's chief administrative officer, has been assigned to work on the issues with the Primary Care Governing Council and the Fayette County Board of Health, said Susan Straub, spokeswoman for the mayor.

"There are conflicting reports coming out of the health department, and we're working to understand all the issues and concerns," Moloney said. "But one thing is clear: the focus must be on providing the best services for the patients and the community."

The mayor appoints members of the local board of health. The mayor's representative on that board is Beth Mills, the city's commissioner of social services.

The primary care center is in the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department on Newtown Pike and, while it has a separate board, comes under the umbrella of the health department.

The health department provides an array of services including general outpatient clinical care, dentistry, social services, school health, health education and restaurant inspections.

The health department employs more than 350 people, according to its Web site. It receives its operating funds, more than $26 million annually, from federal, state and local agencies, Medicare, Medicaid and other sources.

Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.

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