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Clinic celebrates 10-year anniversary

September 28, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

HANCOCK - About 100 staff members, former employees and patients Sunday celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Tri-State Community Health Center, which rose from the ashes of a controversy that engulfed its predecessor.

Hancock resident Marguerite Stottler said she relies on the clinic for virtually all of her health-care needs, including rides to Washington County Hospital. Stottler, 93, said the doctors and staff are extremely friendly and helpful.

"I couldn't live without it - absolutely the finest service in the world," she said.

Hancock resident Florence Bivens, 68, said she used to visit a family doctor in McConnellsburg, Pa. Since she does not drive on highways, she said she would have to get her husband to drive her 30 miles into Hagerstown if the clinic were not there.

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"It's very convenient. You don't have to run to Hagerstown," said Bivens, who added that she comes to the health center on West High Street for her annual physical and once every three months to have her check cholesterol checked.

Present and past staff members also sung the clinic's praises, a loyalty they say was forged during a tumultuous battle that gripped the former Potomac Bend Health Center.

That facility eventually closed after the federal government demanded the ouster of the executive director after several employees were fired. It later opened under new management.

The clinic's board of directors, at the behest of then-executive director Pat Wolford, fired the three doctors and two members of the nursing staff, citing "professional misconduct."

The staff members, however, said the firings resulted from their complaints of financial and management irregularities at the clinic. The U.S. Public Health Service cleared the employees after its own investigation.

After they were fired, the medical staff operated out of War Memorial Hospital in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., for about a year They returned when the new clinic was formed.

"It's amazing how just one person can either make for a good or bad experience," said Dr. Larry Greenspoon, who still works at the clinic.

Reached at home Sunday evening, Wolford, now board president and acting director of the Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown, disputed those characterizations. She said the staff members were fired for breaking personnel rules and not meeting patient quotas.

"There were no financial problems whatsoever," she said.

Wolford said all sides should be regretful in retrospect.

"Everybody loses to a certain degree," she said. "Everybody loses in a situation like that. Everybody, I would assume, wishes it would not have happened."

People at the anniversary celebration on Sunday, though, rejoiced at the leadership change that came with the new health center.

Greenspoon recalled the uneasiness he and others felt when it appeared that the federal government might yank a $400,000 grant that paid for the clinic.

"We were in danger of losing the grant altogether. We lose the grant, we lose the health center," he said.

Dr. Dave Kettl, who served the clinic and its predecessor from 1985 to 1989, reminisced with his former colleagues Sunday afternoon.

"I'm glad to see everyone's lived happily ever after," he said.

Current officials depicted a health clinic that has grown and prospered over the last decade. According to statistics provided by the health center, the clinic serves about 26,000 people from Washington and Allegany counties in Maryland and Fulton County, Pa., and Morgan County, W.Va.

About one-third of its patients fall below the federal poverty line.

In addition, the staff and budget both have multiplied. When the clinic began in 1987, the $400,000 federal grant paid the entire cost, according to William Wood, the executive director. Today, the $455,000 grant represents less than half of the clinic's yearly budget, he said.

The clinic also has added two more physicians and doubled the support staff while the number of patient visits have jumped from 2,700 in 1987 to 16,000 today.

Ray Grahe, chairman of the clinic's fund-raising arm, said the health center has faced challenges over the past decade, notably recruiting and retaining qualified doctors.

But community support has allowed it to grow, said Grahe, who also is vice president of finance of the Washington County Hospital Association.

Grahe said the hospital became involved when it appeared there would be no primary care for tens of thousands of residents in the western part of the county.

"Hopefully, it will continue to expand," he said.

Brenda Francis, the health center's nursing supervisor, said the staff and patients are family. Just a few days ago, she said, a patient showed up on her doorstep at home because she was lonely.

Francis said health center staff help patients fill out Medicaid information - an unusual service.

"The patients really are part of our family," she said.

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