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I have not created a 'culture of fear' among county health workers, director says

Mecklenburg County Health Director Marcus Plescia acknowledged Tuesday that the agency’s failure to notify nearly 200 women about abnormal Pap smears was a “significant set-back and embarrassment,” but he denied accusations that patient care at two county-run clinics has suffered and that he created “a culture of fear” in which workers were afraid to report serious problems.
Mecklenburg County Health Director Marcus Plescia acknowledged Tuesday that the agency’s failure to notify nearly 200 women about abnormal Pap smears was a “significant set-back and embarrassment,” but he denied accusations that patient care at two county-run clinics has suffered and that he created “a culture of fear” in which workers were afraid to report serious problems. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

In response to harsh criticism from current and former employees, Mecklenburg County Health Director Marcus Plescia acknowledged Tuesday that the agency’s failure to notify nearly 200 women about abnormal Pap smears was a “significant set-back and embarrassment,” according to an internal email obtained by the Observer.

But Plescia denied accusations that patient care at two county-run clinics has suffered and that he created “a culture of fear” in which workers were afraid to report serious problems.

The memo is dated May 9, one day after the Observer reported complaints from six current and former employees who say patients endure hours-long waits for appointments, sometimes get incorrect results after testing for pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases and don’t receive need follow up after treatment.

They said a majority of nurses and health employees feel Plescia has paid too little attention to troubles at clinics meant to provide medical care for the poor. Instead, they said, Plescia has spent much of his three years at the helm pursuing less pragmatic initiatives such as a ban on smoking ban on government property and a west Charlotte farmer’s market.

“I am deeply disappointed that a few past and current employees have disparaged our clinical work and suggested we have created a culture of fear,” Plescia said in the memo to staff. “The quality or our work is supported by a documented history of regular state and internal audits and reviews, and the successful re-accreditation of our department in 2015, which included specific accolades for our ‘culture of quality.’”

Plescia did not address the employees’ concerns about the department’s strategy to stop the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, a key goal since public health departments are charged with preventing communicable diseases.

The Charlotte metro area has rates of gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia among the highest in the nation.

The Health Department’s 800 employees provide a wide range of services, regulating everything from restaurants and child care centers to swimming pools.

But the agency’s clinics on Billingsley Road in southeast Charlotte and Beatties Ford Road in West Charlotte have come under public scrutiny since February when County Manager Dena Diorio acknowledged that the agency failed to notify 185 women about their risks for cervical cancer following Pap smears.

Workers discovered the failures in December, but no one told Plescia for nearly a month. Some current and former employees say that’s because he has promoted a work culture in which employees don’t freely share unwelcome news, an assertion Plescia denies.

County officials have ordered multiple reviews and hired consults to learn how the failures occurred and how they can be prevented.

“We are not going to be defined by one negative event,” Plescia said. “We will learn from our mistakes and aggressively seek to improve.”

Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027; @FrederickClasen

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