A Fayette County primary care group apparently might ask Lexington banks to help it lease the former Verizon building on Harrodsburg Road as a site for a primary care center, rather than partnering with the Fayette Board of Health.
Bill Rasinen, former chairman of the primary care governing council — now calling itself Health First Bluegrass Inc. — said Friday that council members are considering asking banks to help underwrite the lease, because it appears unlikely that the Fayette County Board of Health will co-sign the agreement.
Dr. Rice Leach, the county health commissioner, said he will recommend that the health board not sign off on the proposed lease, citing various financial concerns.
"I think there are lots of other opportunities out there," Rasinen said Friday. "We would only need a co-signer for a couple of years. It's a win-win deal for a bank or an individual that wants to help the community; it's a win-win deal for the city; and the people benefit."
Rasinen said his group hasn't approached any banks yet. But state Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, said he's ready to help Health First recruit banking support. Buford chairs the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, and his senatorial district extends into southern Fayette County. He said a primary care center is urgently needed there by a growing population of uninsured and under-insured people.
"The apex of necessity lends itself very closely to the Verizon building," Buford said Friday. "There is a possibility that several banks in the Lexington area might come together and do what is called a loan partnership, according to their bank charters, to do things in the community."
According to Rasinen, Health First would be able to serve as many as 40,000 needy patients a year if it can lease the former Verizon building, which is near the former Turfland Mall. At the same time, he said, Health First would move its existing primary care center from the county health department building on Newtown Pike to a city-owned building on Georgetown Street, where it could increase the number of northside residents it now serves from 17,000 to about 20,000 a year.
An $11.7 million federal grant, which already has been secured, would be enough to renovate and outfit both the Verizon and the Georgetown Street buildings as clinics, Rasinen said.
Health First officials agreed in May to seek a long-term lease-to-buy agreement on the Verizon building, with the county health board guaranteeing the lease. But the plan has unraveled over the past few weeks.
Leach said Friday that health board officials became increasingly worried about potential cutbacks in federal health funding, plus the possibility that the board could be left holding the bag if the proposed clinic on Harrodsburg Road doesn't attract the projected number of patients. He said it's also unclear whether the board could legally commit county health-tax dollars in support of the plan.
"One reason I'm going to recommend that they not fund this thing is that we have been told by our council that we don't have the authority to obligate county tax money in that fashion," Leach said. "The board of health wants this clinic to happen ... but it does not want to create a financial liability that would compromise its primary mission of providing public health support for Lexington."
Rasinen countered that he doesn't understand the health board's hesitancy, saying that he thought the plan was essentially set after a meeting with city officials in late July.
But Geoff Reed, Mayor Jim Gray's senior policy adviser and the chairman at that meeting, said his interpretation was that everyone present at the meeting agreed on securing the construction grant, "not that the Verizon building would be the site."
Reed said he thinks the health board "is on firm ground in being concerned about what financial liability they'd be taking on by co-signing the Verizon agreement. If this is a failed business model ... they could be on the hook for lease payments over an extended period of time. That's taxpayers' money."
Rasinen said he's confident that the proposed center on Harrodsburg Road would be a financial success. By moving to the Verizon building, Health First would save $10,000 a month on the rent it pays for space at the county health department building, he said.
"If we banked the money we'd normally be paying in rent, we're going to have $10,000 or more each month going into reserve," he said. "And at the end of the lease, we would own the building."