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Kanawha Health Department gets infrastructure grant

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After a months-long argument over whether it's ethical for a nonprofit group to distribute federal grant money, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department finally expects to receive funding through a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention infrastructure grant.

The state Bureau for Public Health has approved $22,100 for the Health Department, which could be in line for up to $66,300 more, said Health Department Executive Director Dr. Rahul Gupta.

Months ago, Gupta had expressed ethical concerns about receiving the grant money from West Virginia Local Health Inc., a nonprofit group.

Gupta had argued that the group should not be distributing funds, partly because its board members were employed at local health departments, which would be recipients of the grants.

"It was not about the money -- which is very clear now," Gupta said Tuesday of his original concerns. "We have said all along it's not about the money."

Kanawha-Charleston had initially applied through Local Health for $250,000 in public health infrastructure grant funding, but was offered about $66,000, Gupta has said.

In April, the Health Department withdrew from the grant application over the ethical concerns. The state had been awarded $1.2 million in grant funding from the CDC through the federal Affordable Care Act.

Of the $1.2 million, $400,000 was distributed to the state Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Public Health, then passed on to Local Health for distribution.

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department instead asked for and was at first denied the chance to apply directly to the state -- and not Local Health -- to receive the funds.

At health officials' request, the West Virginia Ethics Commission took up the matter and ultimately issued an advisory opinion this summer that the arrangement with Local Health was a violation of the state Ethics Act.

Following the ruling, the state Department of Health and Human Resources allowed health departments to apply directly to the state for the funds instead of going through Local Health.

Because of the ethics ruling, Local Health has restructured its board in the last month, former board President Bill Kearns said Tuesday.

"The majority of the board members [now] are not employed by health departments," Kearns said. "That was a recommendation of the Ethics Commission."

The commission's advisory opinion recommended the restructuring to assure there was no appearance of a conflict of interest, Kearns said.

"The Ethics Commission never said there was a violation. It just seemed like it on the surface," Kearns said.

The board, now made up of people from various backgrounds, still includes two of seven board members who are employees of local health departments. Kearns, an employee of the Berkeley County Health Department, no longer sits on the board.

So far, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department has been approved in one category of funding and is waiting to hear about the rest of the money that it has applied for, Gupta said.

Health departments initially had until Sept. 30 to spend the grant money, but the deadline has been extended until the end of the year, Gupta said.

On Tuesday, the Health Department used part of the money to fund a quality improvement workshop with the Kanawha Coalition for Community Health Improvement.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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