Fayette Health Department, HealthFirst approve agreement to preserve $2.4M grant

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comApril 25, 2013 

Dr. Deborah Stanley examined Clarita Najera, age four, at HealthFirst in Lexington, Ky., on Feb. 5, 2013. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

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With the federal government set to withdraw a $2.4 million annual grant that's used to operate Lexington's public health clinic, health officials on Thursday approved a plan to retain the money.

The boards of HealthFirst Bluegrass and the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, gathering 30 minutes and 20 feet apart, each unanimously approved a plan to meet the conditions of the grant at specially called meetings. There was little discussion.

"What we have is a plan of action, and that is what we have to submit tomorrow," said HealthFirst Bluegrass board chairman Thomas Lester. "All conditions of the grant will be met."

County Health Commissioner Dr. Rice Leach thanked "a lot of people who put a lot of work into this." He said the federal government was "looking for a sign, for anything, that we are serious about this process."

But, he said, "there is a lot of work to be done."

Health board Chairman Dr. Gary Wallace said the vote shows his board's commitment to supporting public health.

The Health Resources Service Administration, the federal agency that oversees the grant, had given HealthFirst an April 28 deadline to solve long-simmering issues of HealthFirst independence from the Board of Health. Until last year, HealthFirst operated under the umbrella of the health department. It is now a separate nonprofit, but the two entities still share many operational functions. For example, all HealthFirst employees are still technically part of the health department when it comes to their involvement in the state pension system. Debate about implementing the "co-applicant agreement" had gone on for years but gained new importance since 2010, when Lexington was awarded an $11.7 million grant to build a new health clinic.

In recent months, each side has blamed the other for lack of action and poor communication. However, Lester said representatives from both boards met for several hours this week to come up with a mutually agreeable plan to meet the federal conditions.

In a separate issue, the HealthFirst board last week introduced a self-imposed 30-day deadline to decide whether to continue to pursue a public health clinic on Southland Drive.

The HealthFirst board said festering financial problems, including a decrease in funding from local health tax dollars, could make the project untenable.

The clinic was to be funded by the $11.7 million federal grant issued in 2010.

HealthFirst, a nonprofit primary care clinic supported mostly through tax dollars, serves about 17,000 patients a year, many of them poor or without adequate insurance, primarily at a clinic at 650 Newtown Pike. Health officials say that clinic will continue to operate no matter what happens with the Southland Drive plan.

The county health department's services include communicable disease control, school health, health education and counseling, nutritional education and counseling, and restaurant and hotel regulations and inspections.

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