With city approval, new Fayette public health clinic site could open this fall

proposed site on north side is near patients, bus routes

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comJanuary 14, 2012 

  • Facility time line

    Oct. 2010: Bluegrass Regional Mental Health-Mental Retardation Board and health department announce joint venture to use $11.7 million grant for new facility.

    Jan.-March, 2011: Health department in upheaval, board holds numerous emergency meetings.

    Feb. 2011: Officials say original grant plan won't work, say use of grant is at risk.

    March, 2011: Dr. Melinda Rowe resigns as health commissioner.

    April, 2011: Department officials say work toward grant is back on track.

    June, 2011: Health care center given permission to operate independently, long a point of contention between board and center.

    Oct, 18, 2011: State audit cites maintaining grant as top priority; little progress made.

After more than a year of waiting, a new public health clinic funded by an $11.7 million federal grant could be under construction by spring.

HealthFirst Bluegrass, formerly the Primary Care Center, is in negotiations with the city to lease property at 913 Georgetown Street, said executive director William North. The HealthFirst board has approved long-term lease of the 20,000-square-foot property and the plan will go before the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government council later this month or in early February for its approval, he said.

If all goes well, renovations to the property, valued at $450,000, could begin by May, North said, and would be completed by September.

Geoff Reed, adviser to Mayor Jim Gray, said the city plans to lease the property for a nominal fee, perhaps $1 a year.

There appears to be support for the new clinic location because council members see the importance of keeping a clinic on the north side, he said. The current clinic is at 650 Newtown Pike.

The federal grant money will allow HealthFirst to renovate the property into "something very special for that area" that will also benefit the entire community, he said.

The Georgetown Road location is desirable because it helps maintain a clinic on the north side of town, is near many current patients and is easily accessible, including being on bus routes, said North.

The building is currently used by the Community Action Council as an office that provides rental and utilities assistance. It may maintain an office in the renovated clinic. HealthFirst and the city will help if Community Action needs to relocate, Reed said.

HealthFirst is also hoping to obtain a second property, North said. He did not rule out that the second clinic could be located in the former Verizon building on Harrodsburg Road.

HealthFirst had looked at that building last May but the deal fell through when a letter of credit to secure a long-term lease was not approved by the board of health.

HealthFirst is "exploring all available opportunities," North said Friday.

Ultimately, there will be two locations, he said, and when both properties are up and running the clinics could double the number of patients served to about 34,000 and would eventually add 70 to 80 new jobs in the health care field.

The current clinic, which has been on Newtown Pike since 1980, provides general health care, dental services and a pharmacy. It has 123 employees.

While it may seem that getting a new clinic up and running is taking a long time, North said many other communities issued grants at the same time are in similar situations. But the most daunting complications have been worked out.

"We are through the white water and through the tough times," he said.

Spending the $11.7 million grant has long been in the works.

In October, 2010 the Lexington Fayette County Health Department and the Primary Care Center announced plans to build a new health clinic with the federal grant. However, the original partnership with the Bluegrass Mental Health and Retardation Board fell through and the project seemed to be put on hold as the department was embroiled in turmoil. From January to March 2011, the Board of Health held numerous emergency meetings to cope with staff complaints, several outside investigations and low morale.

Health commissioner Dr. Melinda Rowe resigned in March, but work on the new facility continued to sputter.

Some of the road blocks were technical. The Board of Health and the Primary Care Center, now renamed HealthFirst, had long had a codependent relationship which gave ultimate budget authority of the center operations to the board. But federal officials said that in order to retain the $11.7 million grant, HealthFirst had to operate independently.

Fixing the situation was the focus of exploratory committees and board meetings. It was not resolved until June 2011, when the board of health made the split official. Yet, obstacles still lingered.

At various points in this saga health officials have emphasized the need for quick action, holding up the possibility of losing the grant. In October, 2011, tending to the grant was the key recommendation cited in a review of the health department by State Auditor Crit Luallen.

In mid-December, current health commissioner Dr. Rice Leach, who has frequently urged haste in securing the grant, said federal officials were "tolerating us so far."

"No one has sent a threatening letter to anybody," he said.

Reach Mary Meehan at (859) 231-3261 or 1-800-350-5697, Ext. 3261.

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