Herald-Leader Editorial

Groundbreaking at HealthFirst, at last

July 10, 2014 

In the almost four years since HealthFirst received an $11.7 million grant under the Affordable Care Act to build a second public health clinic in Lexington, there have been dozens of news stories about the project's woes.

A blistering report on HealthFirst's management and relationship with developer Ted Mims by the state auditor, missed deadlines, public attacks and counterattacks by many of the players, threats of lawsuits and a million dollars spent, with no clinic to show for it.

Fortunately that will all be history later this month when HealthFirst finally breaks ground on the clinic on Southland Drive.

The hard work of getting this snakebit project back on track began in earnest last September, when former HealthFirst executive director William North resigned under pressure from the Fayette County Board of Health, followed by several HealthFirst board members.

Hard work but with a huge public benefit. When the new HealthFirst board approved a contract to buy the Southland property and build the clinic last month, the savings were an eye-popping $709,300 from the deal originally struck by North, according to interim executive director Dr. Steve Davis.

The $2.5 million purchase price will be financed by the landowners, Mims and his partner Greg McDonald, with no down payment, although HealthFirst had paid them about $350,000 in rent for the property, which it never occupied and that was slated for demolition. Under the purchase agreement, monthly payments will be $15,000, down from rent of $23,475 in the previous deal. In addition, Mims will no longer receive the $15,000 monthly fee he'd gotten as project manager.

Most importantly, though, HealthFirst will finally be able to use this federal grant to build a much-needed clinic and offer care to more patients.

Understandably, there's often skepticism about how public funds are spent. Too often, complex situations like the long, twisted story of the HealthFirst clinic are glossed over and never really addressed. That didn't happen here.

Herald-Leader reporter Mary Meehan dogged this story for over two years, through long meetings, difficult interviews and hundreds of documents. Her work brought the mess to public attention, leading Mayor Jim Gray to ask state Auditor Adam Edelen to look into the matter.

With the audit in hand, the Fayette County Health Department, which had been subsidizing HealthFirst through loans, demanded North's resignation and asked the board to resign and rebuild itself.

Davis, a former deputy director of the Kentucky Department of Public Health, took over as interim director, aided by Jack Cornett, the Board of Health's chief financial officer. The new HealthFirst board, which includes some former members, toned down the theatrics and worked to salvage the project.

Thanks to all.

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