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Funds shortage shutters Access Hernando health program

By ASJYLYN LODER
Published April 19, 2007


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BROOKSVILLE - The organization meant to provide Hernando County's poor with access to health care closed its doors two weeks ago because it ran short of money.

When Access Hernando shut down without warning, the agency's remaining staff members weren't sure if they'd get paid, said county Health and Human Services director Jean Rags.

Dr. Ramnik Banwatt said he was elected chairman of Access Hernando's board in November. He planned to write a letter to Rags and the County Commission, but preferred not to comment until then.

Asked if Access Hernando closed because of financial reasons, he replied simply, "That's essentially it."

Since 2002, the county has paid $355,000 to Access Hernando. The independent nonprofit referred uninsured patients to a network of volunteer doctors. In 2004, the county began a planned, gradual decrease in its financial support, encouraging the organization to become independent.

It didn't work.

Financial records and tax statements show an organization veering toward trouble. Private funding dwindled. New grants couldn't be found. Every year, salary costs took up a larger and larger chunk of its money, accounting for 80 percent to more than 100 percent of revenue. Its bank balance fell.

Meanwhile, the organization had bills to pay, including an executive director who was paid at least $57,000 a year, and part-time clerical help.

Access Hernando knew it was in trouble, Rags said. The board of directors talked about restructuring to eliminate salary and overhead costs, possibly putting administration under the county Health Department.

Hernando County offered $80,000 for 2005-06. The board of directors didn't sign the contract. In December, the board let its executive director go. The county Health Department is preparing to take on those duties, like recruiting volunteer doctors, making referrals and keeping the books.

Two weeks ago, an Access Hernando staffer called Rags. She'd been told to lock the doors, and go home for a week. She didn't know if she'd get paid. The following week, the doors didn't reopen. Rags withdrew the county's $80,000 contract.

Rags emphasized that Access Hernando, while it was funded by the county, did what it was paid to do. It provided patients who couldn't afford it access to volunteer doctors and free health care, including treatment for heart disease and cancer. During its last fiscal year, even as its finances became increasingly dire, Access Hernando provided $600,000 in free care.

Last year, the Nature Coast Community Health Center referred 225 patients to Access Hernando, said Elizabeth Callaghan, Hernando County Health Department administrator. Most needed specialists the health center doesn't provide.

It's unclear who will take over Access Hernando's referral service, Callaghan said. She plans to ask the County Commission to pay for a new staffer to do the job at an estimated cost of $30,000 to $40,000.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or 352754-6127.

Fast Facts:

To find out what you can do next

Access Hernando patients and providers with questions can call the Nature Coast Community Health Center at (352) 540-6800.

[Last modified April 18, 2007, 21:29:17]


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