Questions on volunteer nurse program lead to racism accusations in Ceres

02/25/2014 5:18 PM

02/25/2014 10:12 PM

Questions of liability surrounding a volunteer nurse program that partners with the Ceres Police Department sparked accusations of racism during a City Council meeting Monday.

Frank Johnson, president of the Stanislaus County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, questioned why the city attorney would suggest the city terminate its partnership with the program. Attorney Mike Lyions cited liability issues, but Johnson said the program ran successfully for seven years without a word from the attorney until the NAACP got involved.

“Is it racism?” Johnson asked the council during public comment. “I can honestly stand here and say, from my point of view, I would say it is.”

The Ceres Police Department’s Public Health Nurse Practitioner Program started operating in 2007, providing free health fair screenings for ailments such as diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure for the uninsured and underprivileged of Ceres. Nurse Practitioner Dan Lucky operates the program as a Ceres volunteer in public safety, or VIP.

More than 20,000 people have been served by the program since its inception, and several people told stories during the meeting about the lives that have been saved because of early detection. In 2011, the program partnered with the NAACP to open a once-weekly clinic in Modesto that serves members of the NAACP.

Lyions said the program and its partnership with the NAACP caught his and the human resources director’s attention in May when donations for the clinic started being sent to the department’s VIP program and then withdrawn by Lucky as needed to support the health fairs and the clinics.

Newly elected Councilwoman Linda Ryno raised the issue at the Jan. 13 City Council meeting when she questioned a $2,400 donation to the clinic. She learned there was no written agreement between the city and the NAACP for a “pass-through account” and also was concerned about malpractice liability.

But Johnson believes their actions were motivated by something else. He referenced a July meeting he attended with Lyions and several other city employees during which he claims Lyions became enraged and put his hands in Johnson’s face.

“(The meeting) hadn’t proceeded five minutes before hostility became primary motive from the city attorney. At that point, he became so angry he couldn’t control his words,” Johnson said. “He didn’t even know me; all he knew is what I represented, and that was the NAACP. His anger was so severe that he couldn’t even control the saliva in his mouth.”

Johnson also criticized Ryno’s call during the January meeting for the city to distance itself from the program immediately and to stop accepting checks on behalf of the NAACP clinic. He said no one bothered to contact him after that meeting about what decisions might be forthcoming and that he was excluded from one meeting despite his status as CEO and administrator of the clinic.

After Johnson’s speech Monday and after the City Council discussed the topic, Lyions got a chance to respond to the accusations. “I just simply want to go on record that this man doesn’t know me, either, and he’s painted me as a saliva-spitting racist, which is totally untrue and uncalled for, and I don’t call that building relationships,” Lyions said.

He said he was angry during the July meeting in question because Johnson threatened to have him fired.

In his memorandum to the City Council, Lyions said the city’s liability insurance does not cover medical malpractice coverage, which leaves the city vulnerable to costly lawsuits. Proponents of the program point out that Lucky has personal malpractice insurance and argue that the benefit far outweighs such a minor risk.

Johnson said he also believes the health fairs and clinics should be protected from lawsuits under good Samaritan laws.

“The Good Samaritan Act applies in emergency treatment by professionals in extreme circumstances,” Lyions said Tuesday. He declined to comment further about the accusation tossed at him the night before.

He said any judgment or settlement against the city and the program or clinic for more than the $1 million per person covered under Lucky’s policy would fall on the city, as would attorney fees. Furthermore, he said, no measures are in place to ensure any of the program’s additional volunteers are insured.

Mayor Chris Vierra asked City Manager Art de Werk to arrange a meeting with with Johnson, Lyions and others involved to address the issues alleged and mend relationships.

The issue of the nurse practitioner program was intended only to be an information item on the agenda that didn’t require a vote, but Ryno said she wanted one so it was on the record that she disapproved of the city not immediately cutting ties with the program. “I don’t want to see the city of Ceres go bankrupt because we don’t have any protection,” she said.

Councilman Ken Lane made a motion to move forward with the program while continuing to seek ways to protect the city. De Werk said he plans to appeal to local legislators to create a bill to carry immunities for municipalities that provide health services. Johnson said he is close to getting nonprofit status for the clinics so no more donations would be received by Ceres VIP.

The motion by Lane to keep the program intact while awaiting the result of those efforts passed 4-1, with Ryno dissenting.

De Werk said he doesn’t intend to be cavalier about potential liability issues but hopes the city can find a way to continue the Police Department’s involvement with the program.

“It would be nice if the community would associate those kinds of services with the Police Department because it is so easy to create a jaundiced view of the police,” he said. “Nothing that is particularly innovative or great comes easily. ... I just think we need to have the fortitude to go forward.”

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