Public health may take on expanded roleCounty commissioners recently discussed a proposal to create a four-county cooperative that would join Douglas to the existing partnership of Stevens, Traverse and Grant counties, known as Stevens Traverse Grant (STG) Public Health.
By: Mike Enright, Alexandria Echo Press
With health care costs rising, Douglas County is considering combining its public health department with some of its neighbors.
County commissioners recently discussed a proposal to create a four-county cooperative that would join Douglas to the existing partnership of Stevens, Traverse and Grant counties, known as Stevens Traverse Grant (STG) Public Health.
Last week’s board discussion followed an October 17 meeting in Hoffman between representatives from STG and Douglas County that was intended to identify potential benefits and complications of such a plan.
“We are losing money and funding every year from the state and federal governments, so things like collaboratives and partnerships come in to play, or at least are on the table for discussion,” Douglas County Coordinator Bill Schalow said in a telephone interview. “I think it makes sense for some of the smaller counties out here to band together and pool our resources.”
Schalow said a public health consortium would be more efficient and cost-effective for taxpayers, and it could also help Douglas County secure more money from the state.
Currently, he said, the Department of Health and Human Services is prioritizing funding for counties that partner together.
Dan Olson, Douglas County board chair, attended the Hoffman meeting.
He said with state money increasingly hard to come by, the county needs to keep its options open, including joining STG.
“It’s something that needs to be looked at,” he said. “There’s always a possibility it could or couldn’t work.”
District 1 Commissioner Paul Anderson remains skeptical.
Douglas County participated in a public health partnership in the 1970s, he said, and dropped out because it was basically subsidizing the other counties in the program.
“At this point, I wouldn’t give [STG] any encouragement,” Anderson said. “There are a lot of things to look at before we can jump into [another consortium].”
Bev Bales, District 3 commissioner, said Douglas County would ultimately benefit by banding with neighboring counties.
“Down the line, we are going to do more collaboration, we will need to do it,” she said. “I think [the state] is going to stress so strongly that either you do it or you’re going to lose out on a lot of things.”
Sandy Tubbs, Douglas County’s public health director, said the idea of a multi-county cooperative raises legitimate logistical concerns, such as figuring out funding and personnel issues.
But a larger and more diverse population would make Douglas County a more attractive candidate for future grant money, she said, so it’s worth considering.
“If it looks to us that [joining STG] would enhance the structure and services to the people of Douglas County 10 years from now,” she said, “we need to back up and say what would be the hurdles we need to get over to get there.”
Last month, STG hired Tubbs (with Douglas County’s consent) as an interim public health director after its director unexpectedly resigned.
The joint program needed a place-holder to keep things running while it searched for a permanent replacement, said Larry Sayre, STG public health board chairman.
Sayre said STG officials also saw their director’s departure as an opportune time to explore possible benefits of expanding their public health partnership.
They invited representatives from Pope and Douglas counties to sit down and talk about it, he said, and let STG know by last Wednesday if they were interested or not.
Following the discussion at the Hoffman meeting, Pope County decided it wasn’t – for now.
“In our letter to them, we’ll indicate that we’re kind of interested in the concept, but with two or three new commissioners coming on board, we’re not ready to make a decision for the long haul,” said Larry Kittelson, Pope County board chairman. “For me, it’s going to take a long time to figure out. It can’t be done in a few days or a few months.”
Sayre said STG simply wanted to consider all its options before committing itself to hiring a new director.
“We want to take a good, hard look at some of the issues involved, negative or positive,” he said. “I think there might be some drawbacks too, but I think if [combining with Douglas County] makes sense, we should pursue it.”
… Amy Chaffins, news editor of the Pope County Tribune, contributed to this report.