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North Country Children’s Clinic will close


Under the weight of more than a million dollars in debt, the North Country Children’s Clinic will close indefinitely Friday so it can try to restructure.

The closure will leave thousands of adults and children without pediatric and dental services, and more than 100 people without a job.

“This is a very hard and regrettable decision we are making right now,” Daniel A. Wasneechak, the agency’s executive director since July, said Tuesday. “This is something that we were trying to avoid.”

The closure is expected to affect families dramatically across the area.

“I consider it a community tragedy,” Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency CEO Donald C. Alexander said. “That agency has for years provided extremely important care to some of our lower income residents. To not have that is devastating.”

Mr. Wasneechak, who spoke to local media at the clinic Tuesday afternoon, estimated its debt stands at about $1.5 million. He said the agency could not afford to pay its vendors, or any of its employees beyond Friday.

The agency’s board of directors approved the closure Monday night, and creditors were notified about 11 a.m. Tuesday.

All of the agency’s 128 employees will be laid off as a result of the closure. Just a week ago, employees agreed to reduce their hours and to cut their pay from 5 to 10 percent. After Friday’s closure, Mr. Wasneechak said, a group of eight to 12 employees unpaid volunteers will help the agency through its restructuring.

Among those reeling from the news Tuesday was Jessica L. Muckey, who learned of the closure while taking care of paperwork for the federally funded Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, offered locally through the agency. She said she had come to the agency for six years.

“I’m shocked and I’m sad,” Mrs. Muckey said “They’re putting a lot of people out from help.”

Standing with her two sons, Phenex, 6, and Nathan, 3, Mrs. Muckey said she was due to deliver her third child, a girl, today. She said she did not know where she would go without the clinic.

“I’m kind of dumbfounded here,” she said.

The agency, which provides medical and dental services to thousands of area adults and children at its Arsenal Street office and at local schools, was founded in 1971.

Though there is no set timetable for how long the clinic will be closed, Mr. Wasneechak said in the best case scenario it would be three to six months before any parts of its operations could be relaunched.

The federal WIC program, provided locally through the agency, now will be run through Albany, with local distribution not fully determined.

Though he did not single out any one reason for the agency’s closure, some of the factors were delayed reimbursements from government and private entities, which he estimated were about $300,000, and inefficiencies in its work.

“We will not survive if we operate in the future as we are operating today,” Mr. Wasneechak said. “That’s cut and dry.”

One part of that, he said, would be finding more patients with insurance to balance out the costs from underinsured or uninsured patients.

At this point, Mr. Wasneechak said, the challenge until its closure Friday will be to reach out to other agencies to see who can pick up its work, and to help its clients find other medical options during the temporary closure.

Mr. Wasneechak is expected to meet this morning with Samaritan CEO Thomas H. Carman to discuss the looming closure; and other community groups, such as the state Department of Health and the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization, also have been contacted.

The agency’s closure comes after it sought emergency funding from the Watertown Local Development Corp. after being turned down by Community Bank. The clinic also has a balloon payment of $474,000 on its mortgage that comes due to the bank Jan. 1. Mr. Wasneechak said his agency will be working with the LDC and JCIDA to restructure the payment to the bank.

Mr. Alexander, the JCIDA’s CEO, said he would speak with his agency’s board to see how it could help the agency return.

However, he described the agency’s issues as “significant.”

U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said he learned about the closure earlier in the day Tuesday.

“It’s a major impacter on the community,” Mr. Owens said. “We’re very disturbed this has happened.”

He said he was looking to receive more information from the agency so he could help speed up the payment of federal money owed to it.

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