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Children’s Clinic to remain open, for now

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The North Country Children’s Clinic dodged a bullet Thursday, at least temporarily, when it was given a reprieve from closing, aided by an infusion of cash from Samaritan Medical Center.

After the clinic announced Tuesday that it would shut down operations today, clinic officials, the state Department of Health, Samaritan Medical Center and local elected officials met Thursday to hammer out a temporary solution to avoid cutting off health care services on which thousands of north country residents rely. For now, the state Health Department appointed Samaritan Medical Center as temporary operator of the clinic.

Samaritan also will provide a loan of up to $200,000 to ensure that clinic operations are sustained through the next month.

“It’s not going to clear the debt, but it’ll cover things we need to pay right now,” said Daniel A. Wasneechak, executive director of the clinic.

The clinic has been struggling under $1.5 million in debt.

Those funds will cover payroll for the agency’s 128 employees and money due to vendors, he said. Samaritan spokeswoman Krista A. Kittle said exact loan details, such as whether it will be no- or low-interest and when those funds will be released to the clinic, have yet to be determined.

“This all happened very quickly. We’ve had a short time frame to work it out,” she said.

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, and state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R- Heuvelton, applauded the plan. Both elected officials said they will continue to pay close attention to the situation. Although state and federal funds are drying up, Mrs. Russell said, the clinic soon may receive more revenue from higher reimbursement rates, a result of the clinic’s federal health center designation.

“The clinic was given a new designation, and allowed to bill differently,” she said. “This will change an amount due to the clinic. This could be resolved within a few months.”

Samaritan will serve as temporary operator for up to 180 days, the time frame in which Mrs. Russell said she hopes the higher reimbursement rates are approved by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That would go a long way toward easing the clinic’s financial pressure.

The clinic is owed $275,000 in federal funding from a series of grants, and although Mr. Wasneechak anticipated those payments earlier this month, he said Thursday he hopes they are received soon.

Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, thanked Samaritan and the state Department of Health “for their rapid response to reopen the North Country Children’s Clinic during this challenging time.”

“I will continue to follow this situation closely and remain available to assist the clinic as it navigates the federal bureaucracy during its return to solid financial ground,” he said Thursday in a prepared statement.

According to a statement provided Thursday by the state Department of Health, the department, Samaritan and the clinic will “work together to develop a long-term, sustainable solution that meets the needs of the community.”

Mr. Wasneechak said the Children’s Clinic will rely on Samaritan’s expertise to help develop that sustainability plan for the clinic.

Meanwhile, Ms. Kittle said, when Samaritan’s board had contemplated a loan to the clinic, the idea of the hospital’s recent workforce restructuring plan “weighed heavily.” That plan included the layoff of 23 staff members and the reassignment of 42 others. She said if the Children’s Clinic had shut down, the hospital would have anticipated those patients to be “much more reliant on the emergency room.”

Some people took to social media Thursday to voice their displeasure with Samaritan’s decision to help the Children’s Clinic, considering many Samaritan employees’ jobs were lost or shifted.

According to the clinic’s 2012 annual report, there were about 80,000 visits to clinic programs and services.

As of late Thursday, both South Jefferson Central School District Superintendent Jamie A. Moesel and Watertown City School District Superintendent Terry N. Fralick were not notified of the re-establishment of school-based health centers within those districts. Beginning today, however, clinic staff will provide outreach to its partners and patients affected by events that have unfolded this week. Appointments that were canceled are expected to be rescheduled, Mr. Wasneechak said.

Some services, such as the federal Women, Infants and Children supplemental feeding program in St. Lawrence County, were suspended Thursday and records were transferred to the clinic’s 238 Arsenal St. location, but those will be transferred back to St. Lawrence County.

Although the North Country Prenatal/Perinatal Council board of directors had offered Thursday to oversee the WIC program temporarily, for Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence and Franklin counties, Mr. Wasneechak said the program will remain with the Children’s Clinic for now.

“For the immediate future, it’s business as usual,” he said.

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