The leader of the Stanislaus County chapter of the NAACP hinted Monday evening that racism is behind the city's re-evaluation of its role in a program that supplies health-care services to the poor and minorities.
The charge was soundly denied by city officials who reiterated the value of the program but concerned about city liability in the event of a malpractice suit.
Frank Johnson, president of the local National Association for the Advanced of Colored People, charged that the city had no problems being associated with a nursing program operated by nurse practitioner Dr. Daniel Lucky which offers health screenings to indigent persons until the NAACP became involved. The program later evolved into the NAACP /Ceres Police Stop Gap Health Services which opened a clinic in January of 2012 in downtown Modesto.
Concern about the city's liability came up last month when newly installed Councilmember Linda Ryno questioned why the city cut a check for $2,400 to the NAACP. She learned that the $2,400 amount didn't come out of the city's general fund but had been passed to the city by community groups which donated to it. The money specifically came from groups that received services, included the Sikh community, Ceres Unified School District and Ceres Flea Market.
The discussion then moved to the city's liability. After learning that the city only has a verbal agreement for the nursing services program and nothing in writing, Ryno expressed a fear that the city could be liable if anyone were to file a lawsuit based on malpractice. City Attorney Mike Lyions said there is no formal written agreement between the city and NAACP and Dr. Daniel Lucky who runs it. The council then decided to explore a formal agreement while understanding that the clinic's goal is to obtain its own 501 C3 non-profit organization status "to where it takes it out of the hands of the city."
In January Johnson said "insurance is not an issue" and explained that Lucky, the registered nurses, the EMTs and NAACP all carry insurance to shield them against malpractice suits. He said the city would be held harmless under the Good Samaritan law.
But on Monday, Lyions suggested that the city is liable. In a memo to council, the city attorney wrote: "Even though the City Council has not formally approved the program, the city would be liable for the negligent acts of those persons involved in providing health care service." He went to suggest the city should "extricate" itself from the program.
"We view this program as very, very valuable and something that is tremendously important in the community and all it does for the recipients," said Mayor Chris Vierra who acknowledged the risk the city is in. He invited Johnson to update the council as to where the clinic is in attaining its 503c non-profit status.
But Johnson took time to blast Lyions for his conduct in a private meeting.
"It hadn't proceeded five minutes before hostility became the primary motive for the city attorney," said Johnson. "At that point he became so angry he couldn't control his words. ‘Who do you think you are?' He actually got in my face. He didn't even know me; all he knew was what I represented the NAACP. His anger was so severe he couldn't even control the saliva in his mouth ... several times I had to ask him to remove his hands out of my face."
Johnson charged that Lyions was guilty of "dereliction of duty" if he allowed the city to participate in the program for seven years and be exposed to liability. He suggested the clinic became scrutinized until the city saw checks being made out to the NAACP.
"I won't use the term racist but I will get to that point," said Johnson.
The NAACP became involved in the program three years ago.
"We're not stopping the program," replied an irritated Mayor Vierra. "You are getting your non-profit status. We're going to continue accepting the funds and then we're going to move from there. I think we need some damage control here."
Ryno expressed her feelings that the program was exceptional but said "I just don't think that the city of Ceres, being a municipal government, should be involved in it when it potentially puts the city, the citizens, the employees at risk if in fact someone does sue you and that's a big concern of mine. I don't want to see the city of Ceres go bankrupt because we don't have any protection. That's not saying that the program shouldn't continue. The program should continue but I don't understand why it can't continue through CUSD or NAACP because you seem to be involved with it anyway. ... Why can't they just make their donations to the NAACP?"
Lyions took his turn defending himself against Johnson.
"I find that his comments are very disturbing to me and I just cannot sit at a public meeting and have someone get up and clearly call me a racist," said Lyions. "I simply want to go on record that this man doesn't know me either and he's painted me as a salvia-spitting racist which is totally untrue and uncalled for and I don't call that building relationships."
Lyions acknowledged that he was angry in a private meeting, explaining "what caused my anger was Mr. Johnson's threat to come to this body and have me fired from my position as city attorney. And did I take offense to that simply because I didn't agree with the program? Yes I did. And for the record, those are the facts."
Councilman Ken Lane motioned to continue city participation as Lucky and the NAACP obtain non-profit organization status as well as directing the city manager to seek a state law that would hold cities harmless for liability if they participate in a such programs. Ryno cast the lone vote against the motion.
The nurse practitioner program was embraced by Ceres Chief of Police Art deWerk seven years ago when Lucky came with the idea of offering preventative care "to those who are most at risk in the most vulnerable populations." With the city's backing, Lucky and a team of volunteer professionals began offering health screenings, such as blood pressure and cholesterol checks, to those who don't have insurance nor can afford regular visits to a primary care physician. Lucky offers those services at special events, farmers' and flea markets but has expanded to a Thursday clinic held in Modesto.
The program has provided services to about 22,000 patients, said Johnson, largely because of the establishment of a culturally based managed care nursing center in Modesto. The program specifically provides services to persons who have been denied insurance by the state for Medi-Cal, and undocumented or uninsured workers. Located at 608 13th Street, Modesto, the clinic is open Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. Lucky said that "is in line with the Healthy People 2020 Project which mandates that as health-care providers, as leaders in the community we actually do something about the disparity in health-care access with regards to minority-based populations."
Services at the clinic are provided to persons of all races but must be members of the NAACP, of which all races and persons may belong, noted Lucky.