Journal-Times (Grayson, KY)

November 13, 2013

Health board responds to community backlash

By Joe Lewis - Staff Writer
Journal-Times

Nov. 13, 2013 — In response to community criticisms, health department representatives strongly disagree that closing the county's Olive Hill branch will leave citizens on the west end without access to healthcare.

“We are a preventative health organization, not a primary care facility. We deal with things like vaccines, WIC and distribution of contraceptives,” said Trena Greene, who is the department's Director of Nursing.

“With the exception of WIC supplies, which we still offer at our other locations, all of these services will continue to be available to individuals at the primary care facilities that operate in that part of the county,” she added.

Elected officials and citizens in the western portion of Carter County have been sharply critical of a decision made by the County Board of Health to close the Olive Hill location last Monday.

“I’m against this and am going to do everything in my power to keep those doors open,” said Carter Judge-Executive Charles Wallace.

Wallace is a member of both the County Board of Health and the Little Sandy District Board of Health.

He says he had no advance knowledge of the board’s intention to close the facility and was not informed about the decision until Tuesday, when a health department employee relayed the news to him.

“The west end has been let down long enough. These people will not have access to health care if this facility closes,” he added.

Wallace's comments have upset several members of the health department who claim he has been absent from board meetings for several years, making him essentially a non-factor in the decision-making process.

According to Interim Director Paula Thornberry, Wallace only attended one Little Sandy District meeting in 2012 and one meeting this year.

Olive Hill Mayor Kenny Fankell also weighed in on the board’s decision, expressing his frustration.

“I’m highly upset. Everyone in this county pays these health department taxes. I have a commitment not only to the City of Olive Hill, but to the people of western Carter County to oppose this,” said Fankell.

“I’ve asked the Fiscal Court for a full investigation of the health department budget,” the mayor added.

Citizens on the western side of the county also were taken aback by the news. The public response to the board’s decision has been overwhelmingly critical.

“They really need to re-think this. Olive Hill has had enough economic downfalls. A lot of people can’t afford to drive all the way to Grayson for health care, not to mention the people who work in that office who will be laid off,” said John Steagall, owner of John’s Garage in Olive Hill and an officer of the Chamber of Commerce.

Another component of this issue that has sparked much debate is that it seems very few persons were aware of Monday night’s special meeting or that closing the Olive Hill branch was being considered at all.

Thornberry confirmed Wednesday that notices regarding the special meeting had not been sent to the news media.

“The meeting was called on such short notice that the information was posted on a bulletin board here,” said Thornberry.

Kentucky Open Meetings Law requires that news outlets be notified at least 24 hours in advance of meetings conducted by a public agency.

The Little Sandy District Health Department is a public agency because of its taxing authority.

In Thornberry's response letter to County Attorney Patrick Flannery regarding this issue, she draws reference to a clause in KRS 61.823, which states that media organizations must submit a request for notification in writing.

Thornberry goes on to say, “As of the date of this writing, we have not received any written requests of any media organization wanting that notice; therefore we deny any wrong doing in violating any Open Meeting Law.”

The letter continues by addressing the district's monetary struggles, which directly impacted the board's decision to close the Olive Hill facility.

“The Little Sandy District Health Department has struggled since March 2011 with financial issues. We have talked about every possible avenue to keep the West Carter Center open but have come up empty handed,” she said.

“We feel there is no other choice but to consolidate West Carter Health Center with Carter County Health Center. We apologize to the citizens of Olive Hill for any hardship this may place upon them,” she said.

The Little Sandy District Board of Health will hold its regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 13, on the second floor of the county courthouse. It is open to the public.

Joe Lewis can be reached at jlewis@journal-times.com or by telephone at 286-4201.