The board of HealthFirst Bluegrass refused Thursday to address the demands it received Wednesday from the Fayette County Board of Health, voting instead to contact the federal government for further instructions.
The vote effectively leaves the two boards at a standoff. At stake is the future of health care provided to thousands of Lexingtonians.
The HealthFirst board — hit by the recent departure of four members — voted 7-0 after about 90 minutes spent in closed session.
On Wednesday, citing financial and management concerns about HealthFirst, the Board of Health fired HealthFirst director William North; asked the HealthFirst board of directors to resign; put health department financial executive Jack Cornett in charge of HealthFirst on an interim basis, effective immediately; and threatened to cut off further funding of HealthFirst if its board should fail to comply.
Healthfirst board chairman Thomas Lester said that the Board of Health put no deadline on its demands, and that his board is trying to assure the security of an $11.7 million federal grant to build a new public health clinic on Southland Drive.
"Their number one priority is to preserve the grant, to make sure that clinic construction is on track," said HealthFirst board attorney Edward Receski.
Because HealthFirst and the county health department used to be a joint operation, HealthFirst employees technically work for the Board of Health.
Board of Health chairman Scott White said the HealthFirst board move is discouraging.
"I am very, very disappointed, not surprised given their continued flight from reality, and we will just have to deal with this non-response, and we will consult our attorneys and the city for an appropriate next step," White said Thursday night.
White provided an email in which he advised Lester of the Board of Health's actions and requested that the HealthFirst board act by the end of this week.
Board of Health members said Wednesday that they had been in contact with the administrators of the federal grant and are taking appropriate measures to retain the grant. Concerns about HealthFirst's performance prompted a recent audit by state Auditor Adam Edelen.
Although North said after Thursday's meeting that he plans to continue working for HealthFirst even though he is no longer a paid employee of the health department, county Health Commissioner Dr. Rice Leach said that was not the case.
"Mr. North has no authority to run HealthFirst because he is not an employee of the health department ... and has no authority to supervise its staff," Leach said Thursday night.
The HealthFirst and Board of Health boards operate independently, but HealthFirst receives $1.2 million from Fayette County in health tax revenues annually and has loaned HealthFirst $1.6 million in tax dollars. HealthFirst, a nonprofit, serves about 17,000 patients a year 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.