Board of Health votes for removal of HealthFirst director; Healthfirst votes to retain him

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comAugust 22, 2013 

Citing concerns about the financial stability and management of HealthFirst Bluegrass, the Fayette County Board of Health on Thursday asked that Healthfirst Executive Director William North be removed from his job and that his responsibilities be transferred to employees of the county health department.

The HealthFirst board of directors, meeting down the hall at 650 Newtown Pike at the same time, soon voted unanimously to retain North.

Each board had called a special meeting for Thursday.

The Board of Health motion, which gained unanimous approval, stated that issues raised by an audit by Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen and HealthFirst's unsatisfactory efforts to respond to those concerns made North's removal necessary. The motion was then presented to the HealthFirst board, which went into closed session before voting to retain North.

Each board operates independently, but the Board of Health has a financial investment in the HealthFirst operation. HealthFirst receives $1.2 million from Fayette County in health tax revenues annually. The Board of Health has also loaned HealthFirst $1.6 million in tax dollars.

HealthFirst, a nonprofit, serves about 17,000 patients a year, many of them poor, at a clinic at 650 Newtown Pike. 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.

Board of Health Chairman Scott White said Thursday that because HealthFirst and the health department used to be a joint operation, HealthFirst employees still technically work for the Board of Health. If HealthFirst's board does not ask North to resign, White said, the Board of Health will take action to remove North from the job.

Part of what spurred Thursday's action is a delay in spending an $11.7 million grant to build a public health clinic. HealthFirst has had the grant since 2010, and construction has yet to begin. Last week, for the second time in six months, HealthFirst threatened to pull the plug on the clinic, slated to be built on Southland Drive, unless banks or the Lexington-Fayette County Urban Government provide more money for day-to-day operations.

The HealthFirst board also voted 6-3 Thursday not to dismiss board member Bill Rasinen from his volunteer position. Chairman T.A. Lester said Rasinen was accused of sharing confidential information in violation of HealthFirst bylaws. At the last minute, HealthFirst officials added the stipulation that if Rasinen were removed, he could no longer get care through the clinic. HealthFirst bylaws require that 51 percent of board members are served by the clinic.

Several HealthFirst board members expressed concern about how Rasinen's situation was handled, especially the stipulation that he not be able to get care at the clinic. The way it was handled, board member Don Hurt said, "is an embarrassment to the board and an embarrassment to everyone."

North has led HealthFirst for two years but was not evaluated until last month. HealthFirst denied the Herald-Leader's request for a copy of the evaluation through Kentucky's Open Records law. North makes $100,000 a year and oversees 138 employees.

The HealthFirst and Board of Health boards both have meetings set for next week.

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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