After years of worrying that the federal government would pull the plug on a proposed $11.7 million public health clinic on Southland Drive, local officials have given themselves a 30-day deadline to resolve local financial issues or kill the build.
"We cannot do this without some help," said Tom Burich, building committee chairman for HealthFirst. Burich said recent Board of Health cuts to HealthFirst have been crippling. The board of HealthFirst met Thursday.
Since February, the Board of Health has cut HealthFirst's allocation of local health tax dollars from $1.2 million a year to $600,000 a year. HealthFirst also has to repay to the Board of Health a $1.4 million line of credit starting in July 2014.
The HealthFirst board voted to allow themselves 30 days to find a replacement for the money or end the Southland clinic project, which is being funded by an $11.7 million grant awarded in 2010 as part of federal stimulus funding.
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According to board treasurer Rick West, HealthFirst is barely breaking even. Without finding a replacement for the cuts made by the Board of Health, HealthFirst shouldn't proceed with construction of the Southland clinic, he said.
The members of the Board of Health and HealthFirst have often blamed each other for foot-dragging when it came to making crucial decisions pertaining to maintaining the construction grant. But Burich said he doesn't blame the Board of Health or Health Commissioner Dr. Rice Leach for the HealthFirst problems. "This is nobody's fault. The health department has been slammed with decreases," said Burich, referring to cuts in federal health tax dollars.
"We've been dealt some bad cards," he said.
Last week, HealthFirst officials were talking about the impending loss of a different federal grant — $2.4 million received annually for operating costs. They said issues affecting that grant needed to be resolved by April 28. Executive Director William North said Thursday that work to fix those problems, which deal mainly with management and human resources, is ongoing.
HealthFirst, a nonprofit primary care clinic supported mostly through tax dollars, serves about 17,000 patients a year, many of them poor, at a clinic at 650 Newtown Pike. That clinic will continue to operate.
Leach said the county health department "has always wanted" HealthFirst to succeed. But, he said, he has spent about half his time in the last few months working on issues related to HealthFirst — time, he said, he needs to spend in finding solutions as public health funding is cut.
"Do we need this (clinic)? Sure we do, but we also need public health," Leach said. The 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.
Where will the money for HealthFirst come from? Burich said he doesn't know. Mayor Jim Gray met with HealthFirst officials this week.
Burich said he hopes a local foundation might find a way to support the clinic. He said he wanted people to know that HealthFirst's financial problems are serious.