Employees air complaints about Fayette Co. health department at meeting

Primary care director reinstated, gets standing ovation at meeting

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comFebruary 25, 2011 

At a third emergency meeting within the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department in five days, employees on Thursday described an organization in crisis and workers with little faith in management.

Several speakers at the meeting of the health department's governing board cried while describing their working conditions. Pointed allegations were made about issues that included punishment of employees who speak out and how money is being used. Among the critics was Dr. Deborah Stanley, a key administrator.

Also Thursday, William North was reinstated as executive director of Lexington's Primary Care Center after being suspended with pay by health commissioner Dr. Melinda Rowe. The Primary Care Center, funded by tax dollars and operating under the umbrella of the health department, offers health care to 17,000 patients a year, most of them poor. Rowe has not said when North's suspension started, or why.

The health department has about 360 employees and an annual operating budget of more than $28 million. Rowe has been health commissioner since November 2003. North has been in his job about six months.

North's suspension set off this week's string of emergency meetings, including one Wednesday during which a committee of members of both the Board of Health and the Primary Care board listened to staff talk about North. The committee recommended that North be reinstated. Although North didn't speak at Thursday's meeting, he was greeted with a standing ovation when he walked in the conference room.

For more than an hour, employees of both the health department and Primary Care Center lambasted working conditions and problems with management as their boss, Rowe, sat expressionless, taking notes.

Stanley, medical director of the Primary Care Center, was the first to speak.

"During the past week I have listened as staff reported being threatened and intimidated by their supervisor because they reported activities they have perceived to be illegal," Stanley said. Secrecy and poor communication are a constant at the department, she said. For example, she said she was kept in the dark about a state investigation of the Primary Care Center pharmacy.

Nurse Sherry Ramey said conditions were "appalling" and complained that her paycheck was incorrect for more than a year. She also said the idea that the pharmacy is under investigation is inexcusable.

"We are servants of the people of this community. These are our tax dollars at work," Ramey said. "To have our money thrown down a rat hole is something I bitterly resent."

A tearful Donna Watson, who works in the pharmacy, said the stress of her job has raised her blood pressure and forced her to take anxiety medication. She said she is berated by supervisors and called names. "It scares me to death to come to work every day. I have to take an anxiety pill just to get here."

Kevin Hall, spokesman for the health department, says the department encourages employees who feel intimidated or harassed to report concerns to the human resources department. There have been no complaints, he said.

Marc Johnson, health equity team leader, and Rose Jones, a cashier in the pharmacy, both expressed concerns about how people of color are promoted and treated — staff and patients.

Johnson said he was concerned that he was the only minority team leader in the organization and that there were no people of color in upper management.

Angela Brumley-Shelton, who works in public health, said chaos reigns. She said her team had to move from office to office 11 times in six years, sometimes just given an hour's notice. She said she also had a problem with a delayed payment to her 401(k). The payment was made at the last possible moment, she said, and when she asked what interest she might have lost, management told her she wouldn't have made money anyway. "That's not management's decision," Brumley-Shelton said.

The Board of Health called the emergency meeting after Mayor Jim Gray expressed concern Tuesday about management of the department.

The meeting ended with a presentation by Andrew Weiner, an associate professor of health promotion and kinesiology at University of Kentucky. Weiner has received $6,000 a month since May 2010 to help improve the health department's working environment and management issues. He said that progress is being made but that changing a work environment is not like "making instant coffee."

One of the tenets of the change is a "One Team" concept being promoted at the health department. Employees were given T-shirts with that slogan. At Thursday's meeting, many of the 100 in attendance had altered their shirts to read "Team North."

Dr. John Roth, chairman of the board of health, said board members will discuss the comments made Thursday. He said he didn't know what action would be taken next or whether there was a time line for action.

Reach Mary Meehan at (859) 231-3261 or 1-800-950-6397.

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