-- At the same time Los Angeles County has struggled to cover public health care costs, it has forfeited more than $10 million in public health grants over the past three years because officials were unable to spend the money in time, according to a report published today.
Last year, as 16 health centers closed because of budget cuts, the county returned nearly $3.4 million in state and federal grants. That return in 2002 followed a return of more than $4.3 million in 2001 and $2.6 million in 2000, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Meanwhile, the county is facing a budget shortfall that has forced officials to cut the public health budget by $10 million annually.
Supervisors blamed rigid personnel policies for the unspent grants, saying the county has been unable to hire the necessary workers -- from nurses to epidemiologists -- to fulfill funded projects.
The biggest amount of returned money, nearly $3 million, was intended to hire people to inspect hospitals and nursing homes and manage complaints, the Times said.
Other programs that returned money included lead-poisoning prevention, HIV tracking, infant health and refugee preventive health care.
The returned money represents 5 percent of the county's grants from state and federal agencies, said John Schunhoff, chief of public health operations. The county of about 10 million residents received $213 million in state and federal grants during the three-year period.
Those grants were unrelated to the billions of dollars the county has received from the federal government to bail out its network of public hospitals, which primarily treat uninsured and low-income residents.
James Haughton, the public medical director, blamed the county's Human Resources Department for the unspent grants. "We get the money, and then we can't spend it because they tell us the positions we're asking for" are too highly paid, he said.