Closing of health centers causes patients to scramble

June 18, 2014|By Pamela Wood and Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

When Will Boyd arrived Wednesday at the People's Community Health Center's Brooklyn Park clinic, he was furious to learn that the center will close at the end of the month. The 63-year-old has two broken teeth needing repair and said he was told he couldn't be helped there.

"This is not a way to take care of people when they've got pain," said the Brooklyn Park resident.

Local and state health officials are scrambling to find alternate health care providers for People's 1,100 low-income clients after the Baltimore-based nonprofit announced this week that it will close its five centers in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County.

Court records outline financial troubles at the organization, which was founded in 1970. People's is subject to an IRS tax lien of nearly $500,000 and faces lawsuits involving monetary claims — including one filed by Baltimore City. Several employees, meanwhile, have filed complaints alleging violations of wage-and-hour laws.

Maryland Health Secretary Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said People's has "very serious financial and operational problems." He added, "It's hard to imagine a path back."

State health officials say the loss of the organization — which operates clinics in Waverly, Station North and Pigtown in the city, as well as in Brooklyn Park and Odenton in Anne Arundel County — would be a serious blow. Area residents obtaining health insurance under the Affordable Care Act often turn to such clinics for treatment.

Nationwide, such community centers have been expected to absorb millions of patients newly covered under the federal law. The centers serve about 22 million patients, up from 18 million before that law took effect, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers.

The number is expected to rise to more than 25 million this year.

Sharfstein said making low-cost care available to People's patients is a high priority, and Baltimore has other "safety net clinics" to help. In Anne Arundel County, however, People's was the only such center, he said.

At People's, patients without insurance pay based on a sliding scale. The clinics also treat patients who have government insurance such as Medicaid.

Tina Davis, site manager for the Waverly clinic, said in a statement that employees are worried about their patients, with whom they have developed bonds over the years.

"In the absence of access to affordable health care in the neighborhoods that People's operates from, we fear that many of our patients will ultimately go without medical and behavioral health treatment, and even medication, which could result in potentially life-threatening harm," Davis wrote in the statement, which she said was written on behalf of her colleagues at the clinic.

"Personally, I feel great disappointment for letting down the communities we were supposed to be helping," she wrote.

Employees at the Brooklyn Park clinic declined to comment on the closure or on referral plans for patients such as Boyd.

The extent of People's financial problems remains unclear. In announcing the closure Tuesday, the organization's interim CEO, Stacy C. Fruhling, said it hopes to reopen the clinics one day.

The clinics' operations are supported by a grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, and in her letter Fruhling cited "ongoing delays" in receiving funds. She and others working for People's have declined to comment further.

Officials with the federal agency have said that the annual grant of $2.4 million is intact and that the agency is working with People's on its financial problems.

But People's is subject to an IRS tax lien of $463,925.62, filed in May. Court records show the nonprofit owes the government for quarterly employee taxes dating to mid-2012. Court records state the IRS has a lien on "all property and rights to property" belonging to People's as a result of the unpaid taxes, as well as interest and penalties.

The IRS will not comment on tax lien cases.

The tax lien prompted Anne Arundel County to suspend a $1.9 million grant last week that had been awarded to People's as partial funding for a new planned joint health and community center in Severn.

Additionally, People's is being investigated by state labor officials after three employees filed complaints about wage-and-hour violations. The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said it cannot provide details of the complaints because they are confidential.

The nonprofit faces lawsuits from creditors, including Baltimore's government, which says it is owed more than $18,000. A hearing is scheduled for July 23, according to online court records.

Other claims have been filed by Gant Brunnett Architects of Baltimore, for $2,500, and AMJ Lawn and Landscaping of Pasadena, for $3,897.20 regarding alleged nonpayment for snow removal.

In recent months, some People's clinics were closed on some days or offered reduced hours.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.