Health department part of larger issue of better efficiency

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Besides other for-profit and officially non-profit agencies, Red Willow County residents are served by two public health departments.

One, the Red Willow County Health Department, has a budget of $283,759 this year, funded from county taxes, a Vaccines for Children Grant and fees from services provided.

The other, the Southwest Nebraska Public Health Department, has income of about $577,000 from the federal Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998, Nebraska's LB 692 Health Care Funding Act, fees, donations, contract and grants. It serves eight Southwest Nebraska counties, with one commissioner and at least one director from each county.

With the recent resignation of the director of the county health department for personal reasons, it would seem like a no-brainer to combine the two departments, reducing duplication and administrative costs.

It's not that simple, however. Both agencies point out they perform different roles and serve different constituencies as well as receiving different funding.

The county health department offered the county commissioners several cost-saving options for keeping the agency open, suggesting $100,000 or more in savings resulting from changes in vaccinations and operating expenses, including forgoing raises.

Opponents of closing the county health department are making themselves heard -- through an unofficial petition signed by about 765 people in support of the county agency, and also through the Gazette's online question, "Should the Red Willow County Health Department be dissolved and services taken over by the Southwest Nebraska Public Health Department?"

That question drew 87 votes in favor, 433 votes against as of this morning, 16.1 percent in favor to 79.9 percent against.

Red Willow County Commissioner Steve Downer made some good points Monday, noting that a regional cooperative approach has worked to provide behavioral health and developmental disabilities services, and the county health department's expertise, experience and clientele, combined with SWNPHD's revenue stream could prove to be a good combination.

We hope a compromise can be reached to provide the best possible service at the lowest possible cost to the taxpayers and clients, and that emotions and personal preferences don't get in the way of progress toward better fiscal efficiency.

More and more consolidation of services -- such as law enforcement and other city, county and regional services -- will be needed if we are to avoid a fiscal meltdown in the future.

If you have an opinion, or would simply like more information, plan to attend a special public meeting and vote of the commissioners at 7 p.m. Monday at the Community Building at the Red Willow County Fairgrounds.

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