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Hopkinton Health Department faces ‘five-figure’ budget deficit, scales back services

by | Mar 19, 2024 | Featured: News, News

Health Department Director Shaun McAuliffe announced at Monday evening’s Board of Health meeting that the department is scaling back its services because two per diem nurses had to take furloughs when it was discovered that their positions weren’t funded, creating a “five-figure deficit.”

McAuliffe said that Cindy Johnston, the new town accountant, notified him on Feb. 12 that one of the department’s nursing accounts that covered the pay for the Health Department’s two per diem nurses was overdrawn.

McAuliffe explained that it was his understanding that these positions were covered under American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. This economic stimulus package was passed in 2021 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to help the nation recover from the health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

Over the next few days, McAuliffe discovered that one of the positions actually had been covered under a CARES Act grant, “which had run out in early 2023.”

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was the predecessor to ARPA. Passed in March 2020 at the very beginning of the pandemic, the federal $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package was the largest economic stimulus package passed in U.S. history. One key funding priority was COVID-prevention strategies including vaccines, personal protective equipment and test kits.

McAuliffe said he was verbally instructed by Town Manager Norman Khumalo to end the per diem services of both nurses “until the matter was resolved.” These positions were furloughed.

Said McAuliffe: “The new accountant, to her credit, identified this deficit.”

Because the per diem nurses no longer are available, McAuliffe said “the department is scaling back or canceling most of our nursing services,” as only Public Health Nurse Simone Carter is available to perform them. This includes daily and weekly scheduled checks for older residents as well as glucose and blood pressure checks.

In a follow-up communication to the Independent on Wednesday, Carter clarified what the department will be offering.

“Any previously scheduled services including newly initiated Shingrix vaccine series will be completed as promised and the public health nursing requirements mandated by MDPH will continue on a daily basis,” she stated. “We are actively working to resolve the staffing issues with town leadership so that we may quickly resume our full nursing outreach and services.”

“The new vaccination program also is on hold,” McAuliffe confirmed.

On March 8, this program was recognized on NPR for its partnership with VaxCare to provide town-run vaccination clinics. VaxCare would purchase vaccines and handle billing, streamlining the process.

“We want to see people lead healthier lives, have easier access to vaccines, and have disease rates go down,” Carter said in the NPR interview.

During the meeting, Carter noted that the two per diem nurses were vital in working on diversity, equity and inclusion strategies as well as on the Narcan administration training program. They were able to connect with people of color as well as younger residents via social media.

“We were really building up trust, and a following,” she said. “And we made strides.”

It is unclear how long these positions will be furloughed. The cutbacks come to a department that had been recognized by the state’s Department of Public Health for its leadership during the pandemic.

Strategic plan funding thought to be previously encumbered was not

During his interactions with Johnston, McAuliffe asked the Accounting Department to verify that the $33,000 that was unspent from the fiscal year 2023 budget that was supposed to have been set aside by the previous town accountant for the Health Department’s strategic plan had been encumbered. He was told it had not.

In light of these oversights, McAuliffe said he met with Khumalo, Assistant Town Manager Elaine Lazarus and Johnston on March 13 “to develop a plan to address the deficit.” Khumalo pledged to request a reserve fund transfer to cover the cost of the strategic plan, according to McAuliffe. McAuliffe said the Health Department will allocate approximately $16,928 from an unrestricted grant to cover the cost of vaccination services incurred to date.

Added McAuliffe: “The remainder of the deficit will be covered by projected departmental revenue, reimbursements and the end of the year operating budget.”

Previously short-staffed Finance Department involved in controversial actions

While this action appeared to show diligence on the part of Johnston, it is the latest in a series of controversies involving this department, which had been short-staffed for many months prior to the new hires. It is unclear whether the vacancies in the department contributed to the error not being detected earlier.

In February, Johnston was hired as the town’s senior accounting manager. News articles confirmed that she had been fired from her previous position in the Rhode Island town of Woonsocket by interim Mayor Christopher Beauchamp. Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt resigned in November after an investigation showed she made a deal with a former business associate in which she directed more than $1 million in city-controlled federal funds to be used to purchase 5 acres of vacant land without the City Council’s knowledge.

“While I processed the payment invoice voucher, I did not sign the check, nor did I release it to the vendor,” Johnston said in a Feb. 9 emailed statement to the Independent. “In hindsight, I recognize that stronger diligence could have been exercised.”

In a Dec. 20 email to the Independent, Khumalo acknowledged that Poonam Rijhsinghani, who recently had been hired as the assistant town accountant, paid a “fraudulent invoice” for a Sustainable Green Committee advertisement from the website HopNews after she said she attempted to verify the account, both with her supervisor and the vendor. HopNews subsequently posted an article calling out the department for the error and questioning the town’s “lack of basic financial controls.”

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Well we could eliminate this year’s senior parade that somehow was brought back after a definitive statement that 2023 parade was ‘the last’. I noticed that $1250.00 of Marathon Fund money was just approved to ‘pay for HPD details’ for this parade. Let’s return to funding items of more importance!

    Reply
  2. HopNews

    This article contains a factual inaccuracy in the final paragraph. The Town never attempted to verify the account with HopNews. Had they, we would have congratulated them for a functioning process and instructed them to cancel the invoice. Instead, they paid the invoice without question.

    It is also heavily biased, but that is your prerogative. Rather than viewing this incident as revealing a much-needed process improvement at Town Hall, the Indy casts HopNews as the villain. Also note that the paragraph cites a HopNews article but does not link to it. The lack of reciprocity reveals your pettiness.

    Reply

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