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Putnam Board of Health lays off its entire staff

SCOTT DEPOT, W.Va. -- The Putnam County Board of Health voted unanimously to lay off its entire staff Monday, pending approval from the state's Division of Personnel.

The decision came during the continuation of an emergency meeting from Friday, and is a result of the health department's recent financial struggles. According to senior interim Administrator Lolita Kirk, Putnam's Health Department owes more than $215,000 to vendors, vaccine distributors, and for rent.

Because of the fiscal troubles, Kirk hopes the Board of Health does not have to pay all the Putnam Health Department employees beyond the pay period that ends June 30.

County health officials also hope to have the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department take care of the county's health services to avoid further insolvency. Still, that depends on the Division of Personnel's decision.

"The debt is more than what I thought," Kirk said. "The invoices are at about $215,000, and every day is another invoice rolling in."

Kirk, an administrator for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said the Putnam health board would still have the power to make decisions regarding its staff and funds, and Kanawha-Charleston will provide health services for county residents using the money the state gives the Putnam Health Department, which totals roughly $414,000.

"Kanawha-Charleston will provide public health services for Putnam County, in Putnam County," said board member Joe Haynes, also the Putnam County Commission president. "We want it to be clear that those services will be provided here, not that folks in Putnam County will have to go to Charleston."

The decision will affect the Putnam Health Department's 12 full-time and two part-time staff positions.

According to Kirk, if the plan goes into effect, Kanawha-Charleston will require at least six full-time employees and two sanitarians to perform local health inspections. Additionally, employees from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department may provide supplemental services.

The Putnam employees who are being laid off will be able to apply for these positions, Kirk said.

"The Putnam County Board of Health will still make policy for the county," Haynes said. "Kanawha-Charleston will make policy for Kanawha County [and] we will make policy for Putnam County. This is strictly contracting services."

Kirk, who was appointed during an emergency meeting June 13 to help the board get relief from its financial problems, has requested that the state Division of Personnel board hold its own emergency meeting to address the issues facing Putnam's Health Department.

"They did not have another meeting scheduled for several weeks, but I have requested they hold an emergency meeting," Kirk said. "They have indicated they would ... try to hold an emergency meeting to assist us."

Personnel's board members are being polled to see if that's possible, she said.

The Board of Health hopes to complete the process before July 1. The Putnam Health Department will have to find a new office and trim its staff before the end of the month. The board and Kirk will need to find a space for the health department in Putnam County before July 1, but Kirk said that once a space is acquired, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department would have no problem providing Putnam with services.

"There's no reason we can't, if we can find an exam room," she said of Kanawha's health department. "We're very good at taking our show on the road, so to speak. We provide vaccines all over Kanawha County, to every office there is. Even if we can't find an exam room that accommodates us, we're willing to set up wherever."

Kirk and the Putnam health board members do not anticipate an interruption in services, although the county currently does not have access to private supplies of vaccines, and patients relying on insurance can't obtain certain vaccinations at the Putnam County Health Department.

"We can still provide vaccines for people who are what we call 'vaccines for children' eligible," Kirk said. "That is for kids who have CHIP or Medicaid or no insurance. They can still come in and get vaccines, but a lot of the private vaccines have gone away."

The agency's financial problems stem from less revenue than anticipated when the health department moved to its current location several years ago, as well as more than $100,000 in legal bills it has paid to defend itself in two recent wrongful-termination grievances.

The health department lost both grievance lawsuits and was ordered to reinstate and provide back pay to the employee involved in both grievances. The Putnam Health Department paid Charleston attorney Karen Miller more than $100,000 in legal fees and still owes her more than $20,000.

If the state approves the plan, any employees laid off by the Putnam Health Department would rise to the top of the state's civil service registry, which will give them preference with other state agencies that are hiring.

"They will go to the top of the list for hiring in any of those agencies, including Kanawha-Charleston, including the DHHR," Kirk said. "Any of the state agencies will give them preferential treatment."

The contract between the Putnam County Health Department and the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department will last six months. At the end of the six-month period, the board will vote on whether it should be renewed.

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


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