New task force works to solve breast and cervical cancer screening issues at health clinic

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comSeptember 13, 2013 

Health advocates have formed a task force to solve the problem of hundreds of women seeking cervical and breast cancer screenings in places other than the tax-funded HealthFirst Bluegrass health clinic.

But deep funding cuts at the state and federal level mean there is still work to do, said Dr. Rice Leach, Lexington-Fayette County Health Commissioner, who is temporarily overseeing the clinic operations.

"Keep up the pressure," Leach told the group, called the Bluegrass Health Care Task Force, at its meeting Friday.

HealthFirst policy had required women needing screenings to stand outside the clinic building at 650 Newtown Pike at 7:30 a.m. on the chance that they might be able to get an appointment, said Vicki Blevins, executive director of the Kentucky Pink Connection, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Blevins made her concerns public in mid-August. After that, the Bluegrass Health Care Task Force was formed to solve the problem.

Leach and several HealthFirst staffers laid out a policy that would allow women to go through two partner organizations — Pink Connection and Bluegrass Community Healthcare Center — to schedule appointments as much as a week in advance. Two appointments a day would be reserved for referrals from those partners, said Roanya Rice, a public health official at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department.

Rice told task force members that it was important to help clients keep those appointments to make the new system work. More appointments could be added if the new policy is successful, she said.

Victoria Meyer, one of the task force organizers and a nurse and health educator at Baptist Health, praised the effort: "You guys have really turned it around."

The roadblocks to women getting breast and cervical cancer screenings was the result of a number of changes in the past year. One was a decision by the health department to cope with severe state and federal funding cuts by reducing its contribution to breast and cervical cancer screenings by $650,000, Rice said.

The health department also shifted the responsibility for the screenings to HealthFirst. HealthFirst then had only the $196,000 coming from the state to continue the service. Plus, HealthFirst instituted a policy that all patients make same-day appointments because too many patients were making advance appointments and not keeping them, she said.

Things were further complicated because state and federal rules required that uninsured women get their screenings at an approved clinic, such as HealthFirst, or any necessary treatment will not be paid for, Rice said.

But a HealthFirst reorganization should also help improve access, and at Friday's meeting Rice presented the task force members with a list of phone numbers of people dealing directly with cervical and breast cancer screenings to troubleshoot as issues arise.

Blevins, who had tried to get the problems resolved herself before going public, said the advance appointments will help alleviate the problem. She complimented the HealthFirst staff, saying it was policy, not people, that had created the problem.

But, she said, there remains a gap between the number of women who need service and the money available to help them. More community groups need to get involved in finding the money to help bridge the gap, she said.

Leach endorsed a broader effort.

"If the boots on the ground know it is OK to talk to each other, they fix it," he said.

Leach spent about a third of the 90-minute meeting explaining what he described as a "tumultuous time" at the health department and HealthFirst.

The Board of Health and the board of HealthFirst have fought for weeks over the future of the clinic, the use of a $11.7 million federal grant to build a new clinic on Southland Drive and the employment of HealthFirst Executive Director William North.

North was fired by the Board of Health and has not officially worked for or received pay since Aug. 28. That's why Leach is currently overseeing the running of the clinic. Jack Cornett, who oversees health department finances, is taking care of HealthFirst operations.

The boards remain at an impasse, and it's unclear when those issues will be resolved. Although HealthFirst and the Board of Health operate independently, they share tax dollars, the responsibility for a $11.7 million construction grant and some operation functions, such as human resources. Technically, all HealthFirst employees work for the health department.

HealthFirst, a nonprofit, serves about 17,000 patients a year, mostly 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.

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

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