Cincinnati Board of Health defies Mayor John Cranley by applying for $1.3M federal health grant

CINCINNATI – The city solicitor empowered the Cincinnati Board of Health to defy Mayor John Cranley and apply for a $1.3 million federal grant despite Cranley's opposition and without a city council vote.

Cranley thought he had scuttled the Cincinnati Health Department's bid by using his pocket veto to block a council vote Wednesday – the deadline to submit a bid to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration.

But the Board of Health said City Solicitor Terrance Nestor advised it that it could apply - with one big catch:

The Health Department won't be allowed to deposit the funds until council approves an ordinance, assuming it wins the competition for the grant.

But the Health Department and its supporters on council bought time to try to get the motion on the agenda. The Health Resources and Services Administration is expected to announce a winner in May.

The Board of Health released this statement Wednesday evening:

"As provided by state law the Cincinnati Board of Health is, among other things, charged with maintaining the public health and restricting disease. The Cincinnati Board of Health unanimously voted to direct the Health Commissioner to apply for a $1.3 million federal grant which, if awarded and accepted by the City, will provide typically underserved populations with access to preventative and primary care services. This grant application complies with guidance given from the City Solicitor who has indicated the Board of Health has the ability to direct this administrative action."

Christopher Smitherman, who motioned council to approve the Health Department bid last week, said he thought it had the votes to pass if Cranley had allowed a vote Wednesday.

Before the solicitor stepped in, Cranley said Wednesday that applying for grants "could open us up to liability for serving clients in the suburbs."

The Health Department plans to contract with Crossroads Health Center to use about one-third of the money to service Harrison and Norwood, according to Nestor.

Cranley voiced objections and questions about the grant bid last week. The grant opened when HRSA pulled it from Neighborhood Health Care in December.

Cranley referred to a "spiteful letter" from the Health Department to HRSA last year that opposed Neighborhood Health Care's effort to renew its grant.

The Health Department also lobbied local community leaders and congressional delegates to raise their objections to HRSA.

Facing financial problems, Neighborhood Health Care planned to merge with HealthPoint, a Covington-based health agency, and the Health Department complained that federal money assigned to Cincinnati shouldn't be handled by an agency headquartered out of state.

Cranley also said he doesn't think the Health Department should expand services when the city faces a budget deficit and local non-profits like Talbert House and HealthPoint are willing and able to take over.

Talbert House and HealthPoint have applied for the HRSA grant, Cranley said.

The Budget and Finance Committee discussed the motion at its meeting Monday.

"There was a lot of good discussion and debate. I didn't hear anything that should preclude the city from permitting the health department to submit a bid," Smitherman said Monday.

After Neighborhood Health Care lost the grant, it closed its clinics in Walnut Hills/Evanston, Harrison, Norwood and Downtown and its three school-based centers at the end of the year, sending thousands looking elsewhere for care.

"A lot of those people have already made their way into our system," Smitherman said. "The city is going to be providing services for them whether the Health Department gets the grant or not. A lot of those people live around our clinics.

"The Health Department does a great job. I continue to be amazed at the services they provide to the indigent," he said.

The former head of the Neighborhood Health Care board, Sher McClanahan, told WCPO she hopes HealthPoint wins the grant competition.

McClanahan explained her reasons and documented the Health Department's opposition to the NHC renewal in a 30-page report to the Budget and Finance Committee.

Interim City Manager Scott Stiles and the Health Department prepared a Q&A to present their side to council .

The Health Department plans to use the grant to expand services at its Burnet Avenue site, at no additional cost to the city, department spokesman Rocky Merz said Monday.

The Burnet site already handles STD patients and would add primary care, Merz said. 

The Health Department operates six health centers, and no new centers would be opened.

The Health Department clinics serve 33,000 patients per year, Merz said. He said the city has been serving about 330 former Neighborhood Health Care patients since NHC closed.

Smitherman had said Monday he wouldn't resent it if Cranley used his pocket veto.

"The charter gives him the power to keep it off the agenda," Smitherman said. "Mayor (Mark) Mallory pocket-vetoed so much stuff – about two years of my legislation.

"This is not a difference

that separates me from the mayor," Smitherman said. "I supported him and I will continue to support him."

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