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Committee extends health benefits for whistleblower

Committee extends health benefits for whistleblower
Health benefits for cancer-stricken and fired Head Start technician James Churchwell of McKenzie have been extended for a year.
The action came Tuesday by unanimous vote of the executive committee of the Northwest Tennessee Economic Development Council board of directors, which met at 9 a.m. at the district office in Martin. The executive committee is comprised of nine county mayors whose counties are within the West Tennessee Head Start 13-county service area.
Lake County Mayor Macie Roberson is chairman of the executive committee.
“It will pay his health benefits coverage until he gets his disability, not to exceed one year. It will be worth quite a lot to him,” Roberson said.
Churchwell, 43, was fired by Head Start administrator Pamela Castleman in early April for alleged “whistleblower” activities, meaning he called the county mayors on his own to report perceived incidents of gross mismanagement. His status was abruptly changed from “fired” to “suspended with pay” and he continued to receive his salary of $800 a week, although he did not work for the program.
On Sept. 4, just back from a medical appointment in Memphis where he learned he has colon cancer — “a tumor the size of your fist” — he received a letter from Head Start informing him that, effective Sept. 30, he was officially terminated for “unacceptable conduct.” It meant his health benefit coverage would cease.
With discovery of the cancer — which has since spread to his lymph node system — Churchwell was scheduled for a series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. “I am on ‘chemo’ treatments 24 hours a day. I wear a bag on my stomach,” he said. He is also undergoing radiation treatments in an attempt to reduce the size of the tumor.
Meanwhile, several county mayors on the executive committee learned of his plight and wanted to do something to help him. Thus, their meeting Tuesday.
“After our committee voted, I headed to Jackson to present our recommendation to the Head Start policy committee which was meeting at the Double Tree Hotel in Jackson,” Roberson said. “I got there just in time and presented it to them. There were no objections to it. They accepted our recommendation.”
Roberson said the meeting was a special one and had only one item on its business agenda — the Churchwell situation. “We didn’t want to wait until the next meeting to address it,” Roberson said. “We wanted to do something to give him health benefit coverage immediately. We just wanted to make sure the man had insurance to cover his chemotherapy and radiation treatments. And that’s what we did.”
Churchwell said he is grateful for any help at all. But he still stands by his allegations of wrongdoing by Head Start management. “What I said from the beginning is, they did wrong, they took from taxpayers, and I will stand by that ’til the day I die,” he said. “I am very, very disappointed, though, in the overall board of directors. It has not done the right thing. I stood up and told things and put my job on the line, and they (the board) have not taken care of business. But that’s okay. I’ll just see them in a court of law.”
Churchwell’s attorney, Rob Bigelow of Nashville, said, “That’s great news!” when he learned the executive committee had voted to continue Churchwell’s health benefits.
“They owed it to him,” Bigelow said. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t mitigate all the rest of what’s happened to him. I am very happy his health coverage has been extended. At least, it takes a little pressure off him.”
Bigelow said a federal lawsuit against Head Start and NWTEDC has been filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson.
Lora Wofford of McKenzie, who for several years was executive assistant to Ms. Castleman, said Churchwell’s recovery will be a long one, and will last more than a year. “What’s going to happen to him after that year? Mrs. Castleman and John Bucy are still going to be in their jobs, and Jim Churchwell … well, we don’t know but we can hope and pray he recovers.”
The Head Start program, which serves children from low-income families, is a subsidiary of NWTEDC. It is funded by a federal grant of $10.2 million each year from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Head Start program in Tennessee was established in 1965 by contract agreement between the Secretary of State and the federal HHS.
Published in The Messenger on 10.11.07

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