Healthfirst board again says Southland clinic won't be built without more financial support

A building bought for HealthFirst at 496 Southland Drive.
A building bought for HealthFirst at 496 Southland Drive. Herald-Leader

HealthFirst Bluegrass threatened Thursday, for the second time in six months, not to build an $11.7 million public health clinic unless financial help appears.

If no support is forthcoming from the Lexington Fayette-County Urban County Government or local banks, the plug could be pulled on the project planned for 496 Southland Drive. Demolition at the site is tentatively scheduled for October.

The HealthFirst board voted unanimously and without discussion to support the motion by building committee chairman Tom Burich after a meeting that started with six last-minute changes to the agenda, including the addition of two executive sessions that would allow for discussions closed to the public.

Burich pleaded for the community to support HealthFirst, saying that as "a little board," HealthFirst is just trying to help sick people in Lexington. He said he didn't understand why Mayor Jim Gray, State Auditor Adam Edelen and others have been critical of board actions.

"A big new responsibility came upon a brand-new little company — that was us," Burich said.

Burich also said that criticism of the shaky financial stability of HealthFirst is no surprise to board members. "Our treasurer has been telling us for nine months we've been having financial problems," Burich said.

In July, the HealthFirst building committee had asked executive director William North to make a financial report this month. But on Thursday, Burich said that board member Rick West would be put in charge of reviewing HealthFirst finances so "we can make a good decision based on facts," and that West would report to the board in October.

North, speaking after Burich, said that July is a typically difficult month for HealthFirst, but that financial projections through the end of the year were "very positive." North partly attributed that outlook to a reorganization announced in July in which Healthfirst eliminated 21 positions.

In another motion, the HealthFirst board said it will respond to the Fayette County Board of Health's request for an action plan.

On Monday, the Board of Health gave HealthFirst a deadline of Aug. 16 to produce an action plan in response to a report issued July 25 by Edelen, the state auditor. Board of Health chairman Scott White said HealthFirst's public response to the audit had so far been "delusional." On Thursday, the HealthFirst board unanimously approved a motion to present the action plan "as scripted" but did not publicly review the plan.

HealthFirst, a nonprofit that operates a public health clinic serving mostly the poor and those without insurance, is financed primarily with tax dollars. It is trying to spend an $11.7 million federal grant to build a clinic at 496 Southland Drive.

Edelen's audit began in May at Gray's request of amid concerns about the specifics of the land deal for the planned clinic. The auditor's report found the land deal to be acceptable, but Edelen said the HealthFirst building committee and North pre-selected Ted J. Mims as project manager for the clinic and then made sure the criteria used to score candidates would favor Mims. The auditor also found that Mims had a conflict of interest because he owns 10 percent of the property where the clinic will be built.

Richard Getty, Mims' attorney, has said that Mims' contract included a clause guaranteeing that he would serve only the best interests of HealthFirst and that the hiring process was sound.

On Thursday, Burich said that Mims' heart was invested in the building and that the two of them have shared tears through the process.

Burich said Mims had to be forced to take payment. Mims is paid $15,000 a month, according to his contract.

"I firmly believe that hiring Ted Mims was the best thing we could ever do," Burich said. To that, one member of the board said, "Amen."

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