People's health clinics attempt to stave off closure

Officials with the financially troubled People's Community Health Centers say they are trying to keep their doors open — even as other clinics are preparing to absorb their patients.

At a small midday rally Monday in Brooklyn Park, Dr. Carlos Zigel, president of the organization's board of directors, said the nonprofit hasn't given up trying to save its five clinics, which serve some 11,000 low-income residents in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County.

"It's not over yet. We are actively engaging with the various agencies that we've been talking with for several weeks to try and salvage what we can," said Zigel, surrounded by about a dozen People's employees.

Last week, the organization said it would close the Waverly, Pigtown, Station North, Brooklyn Park and Odenton clinics by June 30.

Zigel declined to offer details of how People's might dig out of its troubles, which include an IRS lien of about $464,000, questions from a federal agency that's a major funding source, and a handful of local lawsuits that involve claims of nonpayment for services or rent. As the financial problems surfaced, Anne Arundel County suspended a $1.9 million grant that had been directed to help People's open a new clinic in Severn.

In a letter last week announcing the closure, interim CEO Stacy C. Fruhling said that "circumstances beyond our control" were causing "ongoing delays" in receiving federal funding. People's officials have declined to discuss details of the organization's finances.

The federal Health Resources and Services Administration provides $2.4 million a year to People's to provide care for uninsured patients. HRSA spokesman Mark Kramer said Monday the agency is "still working" with People's and that grant funding remains in place.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, Maryland's health secretary, said the state's focus is to make sure People's patients have doctors. The state is working with other clinics to transition People's patients to their care.

"Our assessment of the situation hasn't changed," Sharfstein said. "We remain focused on doing everything we can to support access to care."

There are six other clinics in the Baltimore area that are federally qualified health centers and can treat clients who have government insurance or no insurance: Baltimore Medical System, Chase Brexton Health Care, Family Health Centers of Baltimore, Total Health Care, Park West Health System and Health Care for the Homeless.

"Some of the patients have already started trickling in to the other health centers," said Tracy Douglas-Wheeler, chief operating officer of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Community Health Centers, a trade group for the clinics. "They're ready and able to take on these additional patients. There will have to be some tweaks, but not that much."

Patients in Baltimore can transfer more easily to new clinics than in Anne Arundel, where People's was the only such clinic, but Douglas-Wheeler said the other Baltimore clinics hope to have transition plans in place soon to help patients who were being seen at People's clinics in Odenton and Brooklyn Park.

Douglas-Wheeler's group also is compiling job openings at the other health centers to share with People's employees, who will be out of work if the clinics close as planned next week.

People's officials have said they will help patients find new health care providers. On Monday, Zigel couldn't say how that's being accomplished.

"The more important thing is that we're focusing on continuing to stay open," he said. "There are mechanisms in place, but right now, our focus is on surviving."

Patients are still learning of the looming closure. Some arrived for appointments at the Brooklyn Park clinic Monday to find the rally and news crews outside.

Sheldon Arrington Sr., 46, of Glen Burnie said he has been treated at People's since February 2006. He's had three doctors in that time, and "every last one was great," he said.

"I love the clinic. It will be in my prayers to keep it open," he said.

People's spokesman Brian Lyles noted the organization was founded in 1970.

"It's a 44-year history. We'd hate to see it just die overnight," he said. "We do a lot of good work."

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