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Shuttered health clinics plan relaunch

Shuttered health clinics plan relaunch
People's Community Centers' Brooklyn Park location. (Karl Merton Ferrron, Baltimore Sun)

Some former employees are questioning a plan to resurrect the shuttered People's Community Health Centers as a unit of a for-profit company while they remain unpaid.

Several dozen people who worked for the nonprofit People's are seeking wages that have gone unpaid through complaints filed with the state. More than 100 workers lost their jobs when the clinic operator, which served thousands of poor and uninsured patients in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, went out of business over the summer.

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Founded in 1970 to treat people in Baltimore who are uninsured and underinsured, People's closed five clinics at the end of June as debts piled up, including more than $900,000 owed to the IRS. The clinics' $2.4 million annual federal grant — which helped pay the cost for treating uninsured patients — was suspended, and Anne Arundel County's government yanked a grant that was intended for a planned clinic in Severn.

Now People's Community Health Centers has formally changed its corporate name to MedHealth of Maryland. It's a unit of MedHealth Companies LLC, which was created this summer with the goal of operating health clinics, according to documents filed with the state's Department of Assessments and Taxation.

Dr. Carlos Zigel, an internist who was chairman of the board for People's and is also chairman of MedHealth, said MedHealth intends to reopen clinics.

Zigel said "things are really still up in the air" — including a resolution of the financial problems — but MedHealth already is advertising online to hire nurses and medical assistants. The organization also has obtained an identification number with a federal government clearinghouse for medical care providers.

But former employees are still owed thousands of dollars in back pay. Many say they're worried they'll never see money earned in the weeks before the clinics closed.

"They have the same leadership and screwed up once," said Noelle Lang of Crofton, who said she never received a full paycheck for the 21/2 months she worked as director of quality at People's.

Lang is among former employees who filed complaints with the state's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation to get pay she says she is owed. Officials at DLLR say there are 36 active complaints against People's being investigated. Privacy rules prevent DLLR from sharing details of the complaints.

"Money's coming from somewhere. Where's our money?" said Lakeisha Brown of Parkville, who was a human resources specialist at People's for three years before losing her job along with dozens of other employees.

Brown said she was last paid in May but had another part-time job that helped keep her afloat until she began a new full-time job last week. But she's heard stories from her former co-workers of evictions and repossessed cars.

"My heart hurts for the hourly people that probably had nothing," she said.

Many patients, meanwhile, have shifted to other low-cost clinics, including a temporary center in Glen Burnie opened by Chase Brexton Health Centers.

State documents, known as articles of organization, list Jack Goldstein, People's former chief financial officer, as resident agent of MedHealth of Maryland. William A. Green, an investor and developer, and his Enterprise Development Corp. in Owings Mills is listed as the resident agent of MedHealth Companies. The resident agent is a business' official point of contact for legal purposes.

(Enterprise Development is the same name used by the late James Rouse, developer of Columbia and Harbourplace, for a low-income housing venture. That company is now known as Enterprise Community Partners.)

Zigel said Goldstein is "sort of the point person" and Green is "sort of leading the charge" in the effort to bring People's back as MedHealth.

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Neither Goldstein nor Green responded to requests for comment. Andrew Sindler, the attorney for People's, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Green has a history of legal issues connected with his past business ventures.

Green and a real estate investment trust he owned, SynVest, were ordered by the state in 2005 to pay restitution to dozens of investors, according to a consent order signed by the state's securities commissioner and Green. Regulators found SynVest omitted key financial information and gave misleading information to investors.

In the 1990s, Green owned Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park, a pet cemetery in Elkridge. He was fined for running an illegal crematorium on the property and was ordered to repay customers who said ashes were mixed up and grave markers weren't delivered. After he filed for bankruptcy, the cemetery was sold at auction in 1997.

Zigel said he believes MedHealth can be a financial success because more patients are obtaining insurance under the Affordable Care Act, and therefore can pay for treatment.

"The access is clearly improved for a significant percentage of the population. From that perspective, you have a kind of stronger financial foundation," Zigel said.

He said MedHealth has had talks with the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, which funds clinics for low-income patients.

HRSA spokesman Martin Kramer said the agency is not currently providing any funds to either People's or MedHealth.

Alexander Fox, who was People's chief technology officer, said he hopes the new venture is successful. "The patients in those ZIP codes need those services," he said.

He's worried, though, that patients mightl be left in the lurch again.

"I don't see how it's even going to work," he said.

Fox said communication with former employees has been poor, leaving them to wonder if they'll ever get paid. Now living in Atlanta and looking for work there, he also has an active complaint with state labor officials, he said.

Stacey Schiano of Perry Hall worked for People's as a fund development manager for three years and has been struggling to find a new job.

"I get unemployment and that pays the mortgage and the car. The rest is credit cards," she said.

Schiano was involved in planning the new clinic in Severn and said she was crushed to see the project fall apart. She said she stayed so long at People's despite the deteriorating financial conditions because she felt she was helping the community.

"We all believed in the cause," she said.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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