News Column

Mecklenburg commissioners may bail out C.W. Williams health center

June 20, 2014

By Karen Garloch, The Charlotte Observer



June 20--Despite continuing financial problems, C.W. Williams Community Health Center on Wilkinson Boulevard will get a bailout of $390,000 from Mecklenburg County commissioners if the center can meet certain conditions.

Commissioners voted unanimously this week to approve a $390,000 "one-time appropriation" for the troubled center that has served low-income patients for 30 years in Charlotte.

Multiple conditions were outlined by County Manager Dena Diorio, whose recent budget proposal included no money for C.W. Williams for the first time since 2007. Diorio continues to withhold the health center's final payment of $97,500 from a separate $390,000 county grant to provide care for the homeless.

But at the urging of several commissioners, Diorio recommended a "one-time" payment to C.W. Williams in monthly installments of $65,000 for six months from the county's "fund balance." The money won't be paid unless C.W. Williams provides a financial audit for the fiscal year ending March 31, comes up with a "partner" to pay off outstanding liabilities, and reorganizes with a plan to ensure long-term financial sustainability.

The county will also require that one of its finance department employees be appointed to the C.W. Williams board, and that the county be allowed to review qualifications of the center's current board of directors, which by law is half composed of patients who get their care at the center.

Commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller and Commissioner George Dunlap argued in favor of helping C.W. Williams, saying it would be a shame to let the longtime community asset fail. Commissioner Bill James, who has opposed giving the center more county money, told The Observer: "We all voted for it because it is unlikely they will comply."

Since the beginning of the year, C.W. Williams has lost about half of its staff through layoffs or attrition, and it has struggled to remain open to its 10,000 low-income patients.

The federally qualified health center operates two clinics, on Wilkinson and East Boulevard. But the East Boulevard pharmacy recently closed, and patients who've been sent to the Wilkinson pharmacy said they've been told their medicines are unavailable and won't be re-ordered.

Earlier this month, employees learned payroll would be "deferred until further notice." An employee who left after that said she still hasn't been paid for three weeks of work.

"This has been happening since October of 2013 -- getting paid late, getting half of a paycheck," said the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We've stuck around because we care about the patients."

Leon Burton, who took over as C.W. Williams executive director April 1, could not be reached for comment Friday. When contacted last week, he declined to comment.

Since 2006, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, which provides part of the clinic's funding, had placed C.W. Williams on "restricted draw down," meaning the center had to get approval every time it wanted to spend any of its federal grant. That status was never lifted, but C.W. Williams continued to get increasingly larger federal grants -- from $821,000 in 2006 to $1.1 million in 2014, according to HRSA.

A 2009 audit by accounting firm Petway Mills & Pearson of Zebulon said the health center "has suffered significant operating losses in recent years...This factor raises substantial doubt about the health center's ability to continue as a going concern." The 2009 audit showed a negative balance of $134,189 that grew to negative $1.29 million in 2011.

In a related development, the federal Department of Labor'sEmployment Benefits Security Administration confirmed it has an "ongoing investigation" involving C.W. Williams. Employees have complained that money was deducted from paychecks for health insurance but premiums were not always paid, and insurance lapsed for at least two months in 2012.

Nelson Adesegha, a Charlotte financial planner and member of the C.W. Williams board, said that problem resulted from "a gap of communication." He said managers didn't notify employees promptly about the decision to change insurance carriers.

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(c)2014 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)


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