Weirton to Weigh Health Center Options

WEIRTON – City Council members plan to discuss their legal options concerning a proposed health clinic at the future Weirton Elementary School during a closed-door meeting with City Attorney Vince Gurrera on Monday night, according to Councilman Fred Marsh.

During a special meeting Aug. 1, council unanimously passed a resolution seeking specific information in writing within 30 days from the Hancock County Board of Education on whom the clinic will serve, what services it will provide and what hours it will operate; on the involvement of Weirton Medical Center in the plans; how the health center will be paid for; and assurances that all city permitting processes will be followed.

The school board’s plan calls for the nonprofit organization Change Inc., which operates the Family Medical Care center in downtown Weirton, to run the facility. The school-based center would accept insurance plans and provide care on a sliding discount scale for the uninsured. A similar but smaller health center is also planned for Allen T. Allison Elementary School in Chester.

According to Marsh, the school board’s response was hand delivered to city officials on Wednesday, or 35 days after council’s meeting. He said city officials are reviewing that information in preparation for Monday’s meeting, but he’s not satisfied with some of the answers presented.

“We were looking for specific services that were going to be offered, and they were kind of vague on that. … What my concern is is that there’s three other medical treatment facilities within about a mile of that school,” Marsh said, referring to Weirton Medical Center, MedExpress Urgent Care and EZ Care Walk-In Medical Center.

But Hancock County Schools Superintendent Suzan Smith said she doesn’t see the new center having an impact on private health care providers at all, and stressed that no child would receive care without parental permission.

“It certainly is a convenience for parents that they don’t have to leave work (to pick up a sick child) if they don’t have transportation. There’s no way this is going to take the place of parents that have their own medical providers,” Smith said. “This is just for a convenience … and let’s say that somebody doesn’t have a medical provider, this could be a next step.”

According to Marsh, Monday’s discussion will focus in part on whether the city Zoning Board can demand the board of education obtain a conditional use permit, which city code requires when a property is being considered for two different uses, such as a school and health care facility.

The school board’s position, Marsh said, is that county and state projects are exempt from that requirement. But Marsh doesn’t believe the exemption should apply because the proposed health center was not listed among the projects on the $37 million bond call Hancock County voters narrowly approved in 2010.

Smith declined to comment on the permitting issue.

That money will be combined with $19 million in funds from the state School Building Authority to complete $56 million in projects around the county, including the $26.6 million new elementary school. Smith said the estimated cost of the health center is $700,000 to $750,000.

Change Inc. is seeking a $500,000 federal grant, the status of which remains uncertain. Smith noted the school board has received commitments toward the health center totaling “well over $100,000” from the Sisters of St. Joseph and other private sources.

If necessary, Smith said, the school board has the SBA’s blessing to use part of its $19 million award toward the health center. But Marsh is not sure that is an appropriate use of state taxpayers’ money.

“That’s a question that needs to be resolved. … How could that happen when there was never a health care center mentioned in the bond call?” said Marsh.

Regarding whom the clinic would serve, Smith said the facility would only be open during school hours and would serve only students and staff at Weirton Elementary School. When the school is closed, she said, the clinic also will be closed.

Smith declined to comment on what specific services the clinic would provide, though she did note there will be no pharmacy, no laboratory and no X-ray room. In an email sent to Weirton City Manager Valerie Means the morning of the Aug. 1 special meeting, Change Inc. Chief Executive Officer Judy Raveaux noted that plans to include those features were scrapped after Weirton Medical Center withdrew a prior letter of support written in January by its former chief executive, Dr. Joseph Endrich.

Endrich since has retired, and the hospital’s new management team said that letter was sent without the knowledge of the hospital’s board of trustees. They decided it would be in the facility’s best interests to rescind that letter, noting Change Inc. provides service to many clients with insurance at its current health center, putting the organization in competition with the hospital for some of those patients.

Smith said what the school board is trying to accomplish is nothing new, and she’s not sure why the issue has created such controversy. Statewide, 68 school-based health centers already are operating in 28 counties, most in the central and southern parts of the state.

The benefits, Smith believes, go well beyond providing convenient access to basic care – she said the center can serve as an educational tool, as well.

“Obesity is one of the things that is a big issue in West Virginia. This school-based health center could also provide instruction to help our schools in teaching good, quality health instruction such as proper nutrition, such as good health habits … even, for instance, proper ways of brushing your teeth,” Smith said. “These are elementary students that we are talking about.”