Financially troubled C.W. Williams health center reduces hours, patients seen

Published: Sep. 15, 2014 at 2:59 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 15, 2014 at 2:59 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (Karen Garloch/The Charlotte Observer) - C.W. Williams Community Health Center, a federally funded clinic that's provided medical care for low-income patients in Mecklenburg County for more than 30 years, has temporarily reduced hours at its Wilkinson Boulevard clinic after closing its satellite clinic on East Boulevard.

A notice posted on the door at the Wilkinson location says it remains open three days a week – Monday, Wednesday and Thursday – instead of the usual five, that it has one staff physician instead of three in the past and that only 25 adult patients with appointments can be seen in a day.

"All services are planned to be restored or continued once the health center operations are restructured," the notice says. "To restructure operations and address the financial challenges before us, these measures are necessary at this time."

Since the beginning of the year, C.W. Williams has lost about half its staff through layoffs or attrition and has sometimes delayed paying employees and vendors for weeks. Patients have complained about poor service and being unable to refill essential prescriptions.

Leon Burton, who was hired in April to replace former Executive Director Beverly Irby, said the latest reductions, which took effect in August, came as the result of "the plan of action that we've implemented … to sustain operations." He said the center is operating on a $2.8 million budget from April 2014 to March 2015. That includes federal and county grants, and insurance reimbursement.

In June, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio told commissioners that C.W. Williams, which has received county grants to care for the homeless since 2007, had only enough money to operate for 60 to 90 days. Commissioners offered a one-time, $390,000 payment to help bail out the troubled health center, but C.W. Williams did not meet the conditions to receive it.

For fiscal year 2015, commissioners discontinued a grant for care of the homeless to C.W. Williams. Instead they gave the grant, for $270,919, to Charlotte Community Health Clinic, a free clinic in north Mecklenburg. Diorio said C.W. Williams wasn't eligible because it did not have a current financial audit.

Many patients who have been turned away by C.W. Williams are showing up at Charlotte Community Health Clinic, Executive Director Nancy Hudson said.

She said about 40 people who had been established patients at C.W. Williams have come for care, and some have prescriptions for insulin and blood-pressure medicines that they couldn't get refilled at C.W. Williams. These patients are in addition to about 150 homeless patients being cared for under the county grant.

C.W. Williams is the only federally qualified health center in Mecklenburg and one of 32 in the state. Based on the latest federal data, the health center got an 18 percent increase in federal funding from 2011 to 2013, but treated 22 percent fewer patients in the same period.

C.W. Williams' federal funding increased from $955,000 in 2011 to $1.1 million in 2013, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. In the same period, the number of patients served dropped from 10,169 to 7,908.

Despite the center's financial struggles, it continues to get federal funding. Just last week, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced $7.4 million in Affordable Care Act funding to 30 health centers in North Carolina.

That included $229,340 to C.W. Williams to increase access to primary health care by hiring more staff, staying open longer and adding services such as dental and vision care. C.W. Williams doesn't provide either of those services, according to federal records.

All the changes at C.W. Williams have left patients confused.

Charlene Altman of Charlotte said her aunt, who is covered by Medicaid, has been a patient at the East Boulevard location for about four years and wasn't notified of the clinic's closing. Altman said phone calls to the center are not answered.

"My aunt was never notified … and she has been unable to reach her case worker despite numerous calls," Altman said. "There was a man sleeping in front of the door waiting for the center to open the following day, so I don't think he was notified either."