Mecklenburg frees money for rejuvenated C.W. Williams clinic

C.W. Williams Community Health Center on Wilkinson Boulevard. Debra Weeks is the newly appointed CEO of C.W. Williams Community Health Center.
C.W. Williams Community Health Center on Wilkinson Boulevard. Debra Weeks is the newly appointed CEO of C.W. Williams Community Health Center. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Two years ago, the venerable C.W. Williams Community Health Center was struggling financially, cutting half its staff and reducing its hours at the Wilkinson Boulevard clinic that for 35 years has cared for low-income patients.

To make matters worse, Mecklenburg County, which since 2007 had provided grants to care for the homeless, denied an infusion of $390,000. Instead, the county set the money aside until the clinic reorganized and met several conditions that included a financial audit.

Last month, C.W. Williams completed its final condition – securing a federal Health Resources and Services Administration grant – and last week county commissioners, satisfied the clinic had made significant improvements, released the money.

“This is a wonderful story; this is where government works,” said commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller, before the board voted unanimously to restore the money. “Things were going in a way this organization would not have existed. I am so glad we worked together.”

Appeared to be closing

Fuller and others gave much of the credit for the clinic’s resuscitation to C.W. Williams Chief Executive Officer Debra Weeks, who was hired in March 2015 to guide the facility out of its troubles.

When she arrived, the clinic was down to 10 staffers and it “was very dark, dim and barren,” Weeks said Wednesday. “Morale was very low. It looked as though the place was on its way to closing.”

In June 2014, County Manager Dena Diorio told commissioners that the facility had enough money to operate only 60 to 90 days.

As the clinic lost staff through layoffs or attrition and delayed paying employees and vendors for weeks, patients complained of poor services and being unable to fill necessary prescriptions.

The county’s other federally qualified health center, Charlotte Community Health Center, began to absorb many of C.W. Williams’ patients.

In December 2014, C.W. Williams filed for bankruptcy protection.

Accommodating everyone

Now, the facility has 32 staff members, including five full-time health providers. Not only has it restored the lost hours, but expanded them – operating from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, Weeks said.

“We are working to reduce the barriers to health care,” she said. “We are accommodating everyone, the insured and uninsured. We’re trying to get them in before work and after. We’re taking off weight from the emergency rooms and the urgent care facilities.”

Weeks is converting a board room into a dental office. She’s still looking to hire a full-time dentist.

And in recent months, Novant Health has twice sent its mobile mammogram bus to the clinic. Those two sessions examined nearly 50 women and at least four tested positive for cancer. “That gives you a sense of the need in this community,” she said.

An audit completed last year, she said, shows the facility’s financial health “is going in the right direction.”

Late last year, a bankruptcy judge approved C.W. Williams’ plan to get out of debt and run a sustainable operation.

This week’s release of county funds for the facility, represented to Weeks a final hurdle.

“It was a massive weight lifted,” she said. “It was symbolic of the change that has occurred and what we’ve accomplished. It didn’t come easy. They made us jump through hurdles – but it represents a lot of work that’s been done for our patients.”

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