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Kanawha health official appointed to help Putnam County out

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Putnam County Board of Health appointed Kanawha County's Lolita Kirk as a senior interim administrator for the county's health department during an emergency meeting Thursday.

Kirk, who currently serves as the director of administration for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, was appointed to help the Putnam health department become financially stable as it undergoes a state audit and money problems.

"The paramount concern here is the health and well-being of the people of Putnam County," county commission President Joe Haynes said. "Wherever that takes us, that's where we're going to go. We want Lolita to have complete autonomy and report whatever she finds to us, and then we'll fix it."

Although Haynes said the causes of the department's financial shortfall wouldn't be clear until the state audit is complete, the agency has several debts that contribute to the problems.

Those debts include $18,000 owed to the IRS, $36,500 in vaccination costs and $8,570 in state taxes. The largest factor in its insolvency is the more than $100,000 in legal bills it has paid to defend the agency in two recent wrongful-termination grievances.

Kirk will oversee Putnam's health department on top of her current duties in Kanawha County. She'll also determine whether the department needs to apply for emergency aid through the state.

The department applied for emergency funding through the state Bureau of Public Health and the Department of Health and Human Resources in early May, but withdrew it because Putnam officials couldn't meet a deadline after the state requested a "volume of" information couldn't be met by a state deadline, Haynes said.

"The board saw it on the 7th of May, and it was a volume of information the state wanted by the 15th," Haynes said. "We just didn't have time to get the information together by the 15th, so we had to withdraw that request."

The health department has already received a $30,000 loan from the commission, and the remaining $186,000 makes up nearly 20 percent of the agency's annual budget.

The agency's current administrator, Joel McKinney, served as a sanitarian with the department for two years before he was appointed administrator in February. Haynes said the issues began before McKinney started.

Rahul Gupta, health officer and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, was at the meeting Thursday and is Kirk's boss.

He said if proof of illicit activity surfaced in the course of the agency's evaluation, the departments would be swift to turn that information over to law enforcement officials.

"Everything goes back to transparency. We don't serve our purpose as public officials, or appointed board members, if that is in question," Gupta said.

Gupta said he and other Kanawha health officials would be there to support Kirk and Putnam health officials and share any information about how Kanawha handles personnel policies, documentation and other procedures.  

The shortfall has yet to affect any of the agency's services, although some vaccinations, including the treatment for the shingles virus and other ancillary treatments, have been cut back for cost savings purposes.

Kirk, who has worked in administrative health for more than 20 years, will begin as Putnam's interim administrator immediately.

"What I hope to accomplish is to restore financial stability to the agency," Kirk said. "I believe it's achievable; you just have to start and see where the problems are. It could be bigger than what we think.

"It could be smaller than what we think -- until we've had a chance to go through, it's going to be hard to predict."

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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