Health & Family

Troubles deepen at C.W. Williams health center

The fate of C.W. Williams Community Health Center, a federally funded clinic on Wilkinson Boulevard, is up in the air as employees learned last week that “payroll will be deferred until further notice.” And patients are being told the center’s pharmacy won’t be ordering their medicines.

It isn’t the first time staffers have endured delays for their paychecks as the financially troubled health center struggles to remain open to its 10,000 low-income patients. Since the beginning of the year, about half of the staff has been laid off, and hours have been cut.

On Wednesday, some patients leaving the clinic complained about poor service. A woman, who asked not to be named, said she normally gets her medicines at C.W. Williams’ second location on East Boulevard, which has closed its pharmacy. At the Wilkinson site, she said she was told the pharmacy didn’t have her cholesterol and blood pressure medicines and wouldn’t be ordering any.

“There were so many people in line fussing,” the 62-year-old woman said.

At a budget hearing Tuesday, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio told commissioners that C.W. Williams, which has received county grants since at least 2007, has only enough money to operate for 60 to 90 more days.

After the center’s financial problems became public in April, Diorio withheld the county’s final payment of $97,500, part of a $390,000 homeless services grant to C.W. Williams for fiscal year 2014. The reason, Diorio said, was that the center had not provided an audited financial statement for the fiscal year that ended March 31.

Next year’s budget includes no funding for C.W. Williams. Instead, Diorio recommends giving $270,919 for homeless health care to Charlotte Community Health Clinic, a free clinic backed by Novant Health.

Diorio said C.W. Williams is “not eligible to receive funding under our community service grant program because they do not have a current financial audit.”

She said C.W. Williams is paying rent for two buildings it is not using, including the East Boulevard clinic that will soon be vacated and a Novant-owned building on Randolph Road that it hasn’t used for some time. Diorio said C.W. Williams has been courting possible partners.

One rumored possibility is Novant’s Presbyterian Medical Center, which provided physicians for C.W. Williams under contract from 1999 to 2011. Records show that C.W. Williams ran up a debt and Novant ended up forgiving more than $1 million. “We do not have any plans to acquire or operate C.W. Williams,” Novant spokeswoman Robin Baltimore said.

Leon Burton, who took over as C.W. Williams executive director April 1, confirmed that employee payroll is on hold but that the center remains open. Beyond that, he said, “I have no comments at this time.”

Several county commissioners said they’re concerned about the gap that would be left in community health care should C.W. Williams close.

“I think it would be a shame and a disgrace for this community to let that organization die,” Chairman Trevor Fuller said.

Commissioner George Dunlap said he’d like to see the county give C.W. Williams some money to stay alive. But he added that “they will need some time to demonstrate that they can operate effectively.”

Commissioner Bill James told the Observer he’s against giving more money to C.W. Williams. “The problem is that they need a very big sugar daddy to bail them out but they are so incompetent that no one in the business community trusts them.”

James referred to the 2009 C.W. Williams audit by Petway Mills & Pearson, an accounting firm in Zebulon. It included a footnote that read: “… The health center has suffered significant operating losses in recent years. This factor raises substantial doubt about the health center’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

The 2009 audit showed a negative fund balance of $134,189 that grew to negative $1.29 million in 2011, according to audits shared by James.

In a related development, the federal Department of Labor’s Employment Benefits Security Administration confirmed it has “ongoing investigation” involving C.W. Williams’ retirement and health benefits.

Three employees who were laid off in March, including one who complained to the labor department, told the Observer that C.W. Williams deducted money from their paychecks for health insurance but that premiums were not always paid, and their insurance lapsed for at least two months in 2012.

Nelson Adesegha, a Charlotte financial planner and member of the C.W. Williams board, said that problem resulted from “a gap of communication” between managers and staff. He said employees hadn’t been notified about the center’s change in insurance carriers before one of them had a claim denied by the previous carrier.

Adesegha added that C.W. Williams’ debts didn’t affect clinic operations until last summer when Medicaid reimbursements were delayed across the state because of problems with North Carolina’s new computer system, NCTracks. The county’s withholding its final payment of the homeless grant also hurt. “We were depending on that money,” he said.

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