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Big change on the horizon for public health

On Tuesday, commissioners from five county boards met at Douglas County Public Works in Alexandria for a “mega board meeting” where they heard about the process, timeline, and recommendations for the proposed integration of the public health departments into one. (Amy Chaffins/Echo Press)

Beginning next week, leaders in five area counties, including Douglas, will vote on a proposed integration of their public health departments into one community health board.

The proposed merger involves public health departments in Douglas, Pope and Stevens/Traverse/Grant’s already combined department.

If approved by all county boards, Horizon Community Health Board (HCHB) will be established and begin operation in January of 2015.

The formation of a new health board would separate the public health departments from the counties. HCHB would become its own entity with a governing board, budget and staff.

The major changes would be organizational in nature, according to Sandy Tubbs, director of Douglas County Public Health and Stevens/Traverse/Grant Public Health. She said there will be no change to services offered or staff numbers.

Tubbs and Sharon Braaten, director of Pope County Public Health, have led efforts over the last two years exploring issues involved with a potential integration of the three existing public health departments.

HCBH would be a service available to approximately 66,000 people in the five-county area.

During a “mega board meeting” Tuesday in Alexandria, commissioners from all five counties heard a presentation about the proposed merger’s impact on HCHB’s governance, budget and finance, programs and services and personnel and staffing.

Tubbs told commissioners that merging departments is likely inevitable. Public health integration is happening in several states but this potential merger is one of the first in Minnesota. She said she’s convinced now, more than ever, that this is the best direction to go for public health services.

She said maintaining a strong public health infrastructure in the future can best be assured by integrating staff and resources of the three public health departments.

Tubbs said there’s been some nervousness among current public health employees about the proposed integration, but they’ve been reassured they’ll still be at the same desks in 2015 that they’re at today.

Tubbs said there will be a position for all employees in the new organization.

HCBH would reportedly have an operating budget of about $7.5 million, which is approximately the total of all three public health departments’ current budgets. Currently, the combined tax levy for public health for all five counties is about $995,000; 55 percent of that is Douglas County tax dollars.

Tubbs said, “Certainly it is our hope that after three years of operation… that total tax levy would at least stay the same or at least go down. At that point we could go to a population-based tax levy.”

How funding of HCHB will be divided among the five counties has yet to be determined, along with deciding what constitutes a “sufficient” start-up fund balance and what resources each of the three public health departments will bring to HCBH, like computers and vehicles.

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners will be asked to vote on a resolution to integrate during the board’s April 1 meeting.

Amy Chaffins

Amy Chaffins is a journalist working for the Echo Press newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota.

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