The financial constraints of HealthFirst Bluegrass were loosened somewhat Thursday when the Fayette County Board of Health pledged $100,000 a month in local health tax dollars through December 2015, doubling what had previously been offered.
The long-feuding boards each met separately at 6 p.m.
The agreement allocates health tax dollars generated in Fayette County to HealthFirst at $100,000 monthly through June 2015.
HealthFirst, a nonprofit primary care clinic supported mostly through tax dollars, serves about 17,000 patients a year, many of them poor or without adequate insurance, primarily at a clinic at 650 Newtown Pike. Health officials say that clinic will continue to operate no matter what happens with the Southland Drive plan.
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The county health department's services include disease control, school health, health education, nutritional education, and restaurant and hotel regulations and inspections.
Until last year, HealthFirst operated under the umbrella of the health department. It is now a separate nonprofit, but the two entities still share many operational functions such as human resources.
Thursday's vote came as part of action taken to avoid losing a $2.4 million annual federal grant that's used to operate Lexington's public health clinic. The Health Resources Service Administration, the federal agency that oversees the grant, had required HealthFirst to solve long-simmering issues of HealthFirst independence from the Board of Health.
While both boards approved the same document Thursday, the tenor of each vote was different.
"This is an extremely positive move for us," said HealthFirst Board chairman William Lester following an exuberant, unanimous "Yea" from the board. North said after the vote that the deal puts the agency back into the black. HealthFirst officials had previously projected a $515,000 deficit for 2013. The HealthFirst meeting was over in 10 minutes.
The Board of Health, in contrast, discussed its motion for 45 minutes, with board members asking several questions about HealthFirst's long-term financial viability. Chris Ford, Board of Health member and Lexington councilman, said he wanted to be assured that the Southland Drive clinic construction project was feasible.
Plans for the clinic, which is intended to expand HealthFirst's services, have come into question because of HealthFirst's doubts about its finances. HealthFirst has an $11.7 million federal grant to build the clinic, but its board has questioned whether it will have the money to operate the clinic after it's finished.
The HealthFirst board has a self-imposed May 16 deadline to decide whether to pursue the plans for the new clinic. HealthFirst Executive Director William North had no comment Thursday when questioned by the Board of Health about the feasibility of the Southland Drive clinic.
Under Thursday's agreement, each board also voted to create a standing joint committee to continue to work on mutual issues. The committee was first suggested in an October 2011 state audit. Additionally, the agreement included adjustments in mortgages and repayment of lines of credit between the two groups.
Additionally, the Board of Health spent 40 minutes in tense discussion before approving on a 4-3 vote a motion requiring a detailed report of how HealthFirst has spent local tax dollars in 2012 and so far in 2013. Quarterly reports of how HealthFirst spends health tax dollars would then be required until the $100,000 monthly allocation of tax dollars ends. Board member Scott White said he could not support the requirement because it is "heavy handed."
But Dr. John Roth said the Board of Health has an obligation to know and show taxpayers how the tax dollars are spent.
"We get to ask those questions, and we should ask those questions," Ford said.
County Health Commissioner Rice Leach urged the Board of Health to reject the motion.
He said the question at hand is, "How are grown men and women who get together to represent government agencies going to get together and make it happen? It is time to get on with it and get this sucker airborne and make it work."