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 laid off some of its staff and cut hours in recent weeks as it navigates financial problems while under federal supervision.
Beverly Irby, who has been executive director in recent years, left that position months ago, citing personal reasons. She could not be reached for comment.
Her successor, Leon Burton, formerly executive director of similar federally qualified health centers in Charleston and Savannah, took over April 1. But the C.W. Williams website still lists Irby as executive director, and the voice mail greeting for Burton’s office phone still played Irby’s name and voice last week.
The exact nature of the center’s problems is unclear. But in an interview last week, Burton said it has “experienced significant financial issues over the last two or three years.” He said costs have outpaced revenues and that “adjustments,” including reductions in staff and clinic hours, were made before he arrived. He said he did not know how many employees work there currently.
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“We’re having difficulty in meeting some of our obligations for payroll as well as obligations to vendors,” Burton said.
Burton said both of the center’s locations, at 3333 Wilkinson Blvd. and the newer one at 900 East Blvd., have been open during normal weekday hours since he started.
“I will be working with the board and the staff to improve the performance of the program and allow us to sustain our program,” Burton said.
Last Wednesday morning, the Wilkinson location was open and busy, with some patients walking in without appointments. “I’d like to see a doctor,” one man said. And the receptionist responded, “OK. Sign in.”
But a Charlotte physician familiar with the center’s operations painted a bleak picture. The doctor, unauthorized to speak publicly and asking to remain anonymous, said finances there are “in a shambles. …They laid off as much as 50 percent of their staff. … They were short on supplies. It’s been really sad and difficult.”
C.W. Williams Community Health Center was founded in 1981 and named for Dr. Charles Warren Williams, who in 1961 became the first African-American on the staff of Charlotte Memorial Hospital (now Carolinas Medical Center). Co-founders were Peggy Beckwith, founder of the local Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation; Dr. John Murphy, a local dentist; and Rowe “Jack” Motley, the first African-American county commissioner.
The center is the only federally qualified health center in Mecklenburg County, and one of 32 in the state. Gastonia and Concord each also have one.
Federally qualified health centers, governed by boards of mostly patients, are intended to serve everyone. Patients without insurance may qualify for a program where fees are based on income. Federal records show that in 2012, C.W. Williams served about 10,467 patients, and 99 percent were at or below 200 percent of the poverty level.
According to its website, C.W. Williams operates on an annual budget of about $5.3 million, including federal and county grants and Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement. It has had about 60 employees, including a dozen or so doctors, nurses and other medical providers.
The center received a $1.1 million grant from the federal government in fiscal year 2014. In the same year, it also received a $390,000 grant from Mecklenburg County commissioners as part of an initiative to provide health care to the homeless.
An official with the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, the agency that provides part of the clinic’s funding, said C.W. Williams has been on “restricted draw down” status since 2006 because of “documented consecutive losses.”
Normally, a federally qualified health center would spend its federal grant monies and then file a year-end report. The restricted status means C.W. Williams must get federal approval before spending any of its federal funds, the HRSA official said.
The federal official said there is “no federal investigation per se” and HRSA funding remains in place. “Our goal is always to keep the health centers up and running,” the official said.
Appointments backed up
Despite these financial problems, Paul Hanneman, program director of the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte, said a nurse from C.W. Williams continues to visit the day center for the homeless weekday mornings, thanks to the county grant. If homeless patients need to see a doctor, the nurse sometimes refers them to C.W. Williams, but Hanneman said it is taking two or three months to get appointments.
“They’ve gotten slammed by the numbers of folks who have needed those services,” Hanneman said. “The word I got was that two-thirds of the way through the grant, they had already seen as many people as they estimated when they applied for it. So they were way, way behind. … It has been frustrating for them and for us that our folks could not get in sooner to see a doctor.”
“In one sense they’re a victim of their own success,” Hanneman said. “This has been a harder year for them in terms of being able to keep up with the demand.”