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Children's Clinic closes temporarily under financial hardship

Joanna Richards

When Dan Wasneechak took the helm of the North Country Children's Clinic in August, he had no idea that less than two months into his tenure, he'd be announcing its temporary closure. But he did that yesterday afternoon, after a frantic week of trying to sort out the clinic's finances to keep it running.

As patients came in and out for appointments, Wasneechak spoke to reporters at a hastily-called news conference in a back room of the clinic. “We feel that, with the layoffs, without having to pay the salaries at this point in time, by getting some of the receivals that we know are going to be coming back to us, from the insurance companies or some other private payers, that we should be able to satisfy a good portion of our debt, and then be in a better place to be able to restructure to go forth,” he said.

Wasneechak said the clinic hopes to begin reopening in three to six months. For more than 40 years, it has served needy children in the region. Its Watertown clinic offers dental, mental and primary health care, and its offices there and in Lowville, Canton and Malone serve about 10,000 women and children in the WIC nutrition program. And the clinic runs many school-based health centers in two Jefferson County districts. But Wasneechak believes the clinic must start taking on more patients with private insurance coverage in order to survive – and make major efficiency improvements.

He said  he learned of the nonprofit's dire finances only after taking the top job. A delay in government reimbursements and grant funds came on top of a decline in private donations, due to the weak economy. Last month, the clinic took out an emergency loan from the Watertown Local Development Corporation. Just last week, its employees agreed to a shorter workweek and pay cuts. Then the federal government shut down.

“We realized that some of the funds that were expected in October were now being postponed until November or so, which resulted in us realizing we could not make payroll,” he said.

All of the clinic's approximately 130 employees will be laid off after Friday, when it ceases nearly all operations. A skeleton staff of about a dozen employees have agreed to stay on as volunteers. During the closure, they will help patients access their medical records, and try to help them find alternative sources of medical care, Wasneechak said.