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Blame spreads over mistakes at health clinic. Here’s why you should care.

Commissioner Pat Cotham said elected officials and the public still haven’t been given a full account of what happened and who should have stopped it.“Our job is to figure out what the heck happened,” Cotham said. “These are women’s lives and we need to make sure this never happens again.”
Commissioner Pat Cotham said elected officials and the public still haven’t been given a full account of what happened and who should have stopped it.“Our job is to figure out what the heck happened,” Cotham said. “These are women’s lives and we need to make sure this never happens again.” dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

As more details emerged this week about mistakes at health clinics that serve low-income women in Charlotte, questions remain.

Chief among them:

Who’s to blame? How widespread are the agency’s failures?

Here’s why answers to those questions matter – even if you don’t use the services of one of Mecklenburg County’s public clinics:

▪ Taxpayers shell out at least $70 million a year for public health in Mecklenburg County.

▪ Local health departments are the front-line forces to protect the health of residents. Mecklenburg County’s department prevents epidemics and the spread of disease for its 1 million residents, including STDs and highly contagious diseases.

For example, last week, it was the health department that tested the skin of 117 people known to have come into contact with a tuberculosis patient who stayed at the Room in the Inn program for the homeless. The program is run through local churches.

To be sure, no evidence has emerged suggesting recent errors by the agency in handling Pap smears extends beyond two health clinics where the women were tested.

But an internal review obtained by the Observer this week says Mecklenburg’s Health Department “lacked clear lines of supervision and management.”

That worries elected officials such as Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners member Bill James, who chairs a committee that is looking into the delay in notifications.

“I still plan to get to the bottom of this,” James said. “It is hard to reach a conclusion until you have all of the facts.”

Investigators from the county’s Human Resources department spread blame from workers to supervisors and managers for the failure to notify nearly 200 patients about their risks for cervical cancer.

The internal review also found:

▪ Employees lacked urgency once they identified the problem.

▪ Management showed a “lack of leadership” in identifying the extent of the problem and correcting it.

▪ Supervisors and managers failed to respond to concerns raised by employees.

The report appears to contrast with public statements from Health Director Marcus Plescia and County Manager Dena Diorio, who have suggested the problem stemmed largely from one nurse who was assigned to follow up with patients.

In a written statement, county administrators did not say whether they agreed with the report’s findings.

The nurse who was assigned patient follow up and three supervisors resigned under pressure earlier this year.

But no senior managers were terminated, the county says.

Asked whether delays in telling women about their test results reflect poorly on Plescia, the county said in a statement that he was unaware of the problem until January. That’s about a month after workers first discovered the full extent of the problem.

Plescia recently said that he doesn’t understand why workers did not immediately contact him when they learned about the issue.

Commissioner Pat Cotham said the report’s conclusions make clear that elected officials and the public still haven’t been given a full account of what happened and who should have stopped it.

“Our job is to figure out what the heck happened,” Cotham said. “These are women’s lives and we need to make sure this never happens again.”

Clasen-Kelly: 704 219-2667

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