I WAS STARTING to wonder what takes longer - getting an appointment at one of the city's overcrowded and understaffed Neighborhood Health Centers or getting Mayor Street's administration to explain the long wait.

But then Carmen Paris, interim commissioner of the Department of Public Health, called, nine days after I left messages asking about a new report from the Philadelphia Unemployment Project.

The project's report shows that first-time patients are waiting four, five and sometimes six months to get an appointment at one of the city's nine health centers.

I'm guessing Paris finally got on the phone because I asked her boss, the mayor, last week to explain why his administration was sitting on $1.8 million set aside in the city budget last May to add staff to the health centers.

City Council, in a budget deal with Street, demanded the added staff to reduce the wait time for health-center appointments.

Street responded last week with his standard lecture on how Council has to find ways to pay for the things it wants.

That's a bogus argument.

The mayor agreed to spend the money because he needed Council to approve his budget.

Street also complained that it takes several months for the city to hire employees. "We're not the private sector," he said. "We can't just bring people on and put them on the payroll in an instant."

Another bogus argument.

Guess what would happen if hiring health-center staff was a priority for Street? The jobs would be filled by now.

Finally, the mayor said he would keep his promise.

"Any budget deal we make, we intend to keep," Street insisted.

Time will soon tell if that too is a bogus argument.

The Department of Public Health, like all city agencies, must make requests for new positions, even if the money is set aside in the budget to pay for them.

Paris said her department requested about 70 new health-center jobs, half in July when the city's fiscal year started and half in October.

If the new health-center workers aren't on the job by the end of June, when the city's fiscal year ends, then the department has to restart the hiring process with new requests for the positions.

And the waiting continues.

"That is painfully correct," Paris told me last week. "That is exactly what happens."

So how goes the hiring?

Not so good. Of the 70 new positions, about 70 are unfilled.

Paris said her department has managed to fill about 25 existing jobs that had been vacant since staffers left.

So that's a start.

And Paris points out that she's shopping around for health-care positions in high demand - nurses, dentists and pharmacists.

"It is very challenging for us in the Health Department to recruit staff," Paris explained.

The patients at the health centers are often people known as the "working poor," holding low-paying jobs that don't provide health insurance. More staff at the health centers, along with cutting down on the wait time, would extend hours in the evenings and on weekends so patients would not have to miss work to see a doctor or dentist.

"Our uninsured patients have so few options for care," Paris said. "It is very, very hard to meet the need."

Which brings me back to the mayor, now winding down the end of his second term with the same rhetoric as the opening days of his administration.

You know his song and dance - we should care for the most vulnerable in our city, the children, the elderly, the poor, the people desperately trying to make it who need a helping hand.

It's a nice tune. Too bad his moves don't match the

lyrics. *

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