By Brian Messenger
---- — The state is pulling the plug on a grant designed to help Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill provide better health services to the public.
State health officials decided to end the regional grant shared by the three cities after the Methuen City Council eliminated funding for that city’s health director, who administered the grant.
A four-year, $325,000 grant created the Merrimack Valley Health District in 2012. The grant was designed to give a boost to financially strapped local health departments by paying for a full-time public health nurse and part-time environmental health inspector. Only five such grants were awarded statewide.
The decision to cease grant funding after this year means Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill will lose out on $214,000. The nurse will be laid off Friday and local officials must now work to convince the state to temporarily retain the inspector.
“It’s a significant blow,” said Methuen Community Development Director William Buckley. “I don’t know if the opportunity is completely lost. It will make any type of regionalization of our health departments that much more difficult.”
Former Methuen Health Director Brian LaGrasse had served as grant administrator. During a budget hearing in June, city councilors voted to cut his $73,149 annual salary down to $1, effectively eliminating the position.
The state Department of Public Health sent Methuen a “notice of termination” for the grant on Aug. 7. On Thursday, Buckley and William Pillsbury, Haverhill’s director of planning and economic development, met with state health officials at Methuen City Hall in an attempt to salvage the grant, which was originally slated to run until December 2015.
“We were basically making a plea for them to reverse their decision,” said Buckley. “It was clear to us ... it will be highly unlikely there will be money available in years three and four of the grant.”
According to a January 2012 press release announcing the grant, the nurse and inspector were hired to help local health departments address communicable disease control, chronic disease reduction and environmental health protection.
Members of the regional health district were expected to work with local hospitals and health centers to prioritize public health needs by developing a “community health assessment,” according to the release.
Funding was split up so the district was to receive $100,000 in each of the first two years of the grant, and then $75,000 and $50,000 in the final two years. To date, Buckley said the district has received $111,000 and spent $46,000.
In a prepared statement, state Department of Public Health spokeswoman Anne Roach wrote that the department “ended this contract as the district demonstrated limited capacity to fulfill its obligations under the grant’s terms and conditions.”
Calls to Pillsbury with the city of Haverhill and Peter Blanchette, health agent and building commissioner for Lawrence, were not returned for this story.
The health district will still be able to use $65,000 in unspent grant money already issued by the state.
Buckley said local officials will submit a proposal to use a large portion of that money to retain health inspector Rosemary Decie. Hired in May, Decie is paid $38 per hour as a consultant and typically works 24 hours per week, or one full day in each city. Buckley said Decie performs a variety of health inspections, ranging from septic systems to restaurants.
Buckley said regional public health nurse Elizabeth Malone will be laid off Friday. Hired in August 2012, Malone works out of Holy Family Hospital in Methuen and supports existing local health staffs with various clinics and anti-obesity initiatives. Malone is paid $50,000 a year and works 35 hours per week.
Because Lawrence and Haverhill do not employ health directors, Buckley said LaGrasse, whose job was eliminated in Methuen, was the only person qualified to serve as grant administrator. LaGrasse also served as the direct supervisor for both Decie and Malone.
“He played a critical role in the implementation of this grant,” Buckley said of LaGrasse.
In her prepared statement, Roach said the state has “offered legal technical assistance and other services” in an effort to promote shared public health resources in the region.
But without grant money, Buckley said there are no immediate funding sources available to pursue health regionalization. He said the grant was considered “seed money” to help build a regional health district.
“There did not seem to be political buy-in,” said Buckley, referencing the health director cut. “It caught the state off guard.”
Methuen Board of Health Chairman Ray Wrobel questioned whether the loss of the grant will negatively impact the city’s ability to secure funding in the future. In time, Wrobel said the health district could have led to a variety of shared services, including the implementation of a regional health director to oversee shared resources.
“I think it’s disappointing news for everybody,” said Wrobel. “It could have saved all the cities money.”