Two health department employees were reassigned as a result of pharmacy probe

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comFebruary 26, 2011 

  • Department in crisis

    ■ January or February: Health commissioner Dr. Melinda Rowe suspends William North, executive director of the Primary Care Center, with pay. No reason has been given for the suspension.

    ■ Feb. 17: The Primary Care board holds an emergency meeting to discuss North's situation.

    ■ Feb. 20: The Primary Care board at a second emergency meeting votes to support North.

    ■ Feb. 23: An eight-member joint committee of the Board of Health and the Primary Care board holds a closed meeting to hear from employees about North.

    ■ Feb. 24: North is reinstated. The health department board holds an emergency meeting where staff members are highly critical of Rowe and the department's management.

    ■ Feb. 25: The health department acknowledges that Chief Operating Officer Kyle Black and head of the pharmacy Surinder Sabharwal had been reassigned in reaction to an ongoing investigation by the Office of the Inspector General and the Kentucky Board of Pharmacy.

    Mary Meehan

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The chief operating officer of Lexington's embattled Primary Care Center and the head of the center's pharmacy were reassigned at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department in response to an investigation by the state's Office of Inspector General.

Kyle Black, the chief operating officer of primary care, and Surinder Sabharwal, head of the pharmacy, were reassigned to other duties within the health department late last year.

Kevin Hall, a spokesman for the health department, confirmed their reassignment for the first time Friday.

Black had been acting executive director of primary care after the March 2010 retirement of Dr. Rice Leach. He ran the center, a taxpayer-funded health treatment facility that cares for 17,000 mostly poor patients a year, until William North, the current executive director, arrived in August.

The OIG, part of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and the state Board of Pharmacy confirmed the ongoing investigation to the Herald-Leader this week after the inquiry was mentioned in several public meetings.

According to the health department's annual report, the pharmacy fills more than 9,500 prescriptions a month.

Hall said health officials contacted the OIG last March after receiving anonymous complaints about pharmacy operations from an employee. He would not comment on what the investigators are looking into.

The health department is cooperating fully with the review, Hall said, adding that the reassignment of Black and Sabharwal "does not imply any wrongdoing."

Black and Sabharwal declined, through Hall, to comment.

The health department, which has 360 employees and an annual operating budget of more than $28 million, has been the subject of three emergency meetings recently, and Mayor Jim Gray has been highly critical of the management of the health department.

Gray has said he was "concerned that too many symptoms point to management and leadership issues at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department."

Black has been with the health department for four years. He has been reassigned since Oct. 28. Sabharwal, who worked there from 1986 to 1998 and returned in 2000, has been reassigned to the epidemiology division since Nov. 29.

In recent public meetings, employees have complained of wide mismanagement. Pharmacy employees described an abusive and hostile environment where they were regularly berated. One employee claimed that North brought in a therapist to help staffers cope with the results of the hostile work environment.

North and health commissioner Dr. Melinda Rowe declined to comment.

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

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