When Sandy Tubbs received a call about an award she was going to be receiving from the Minnesota Department of Health, she was quite confused.

She asked the caller, "Who did that?" knowing someone had to have nominated her.

Tubbs, administrator of Horizon Public Health, was told it was her staff members.

"I told the person I didn't know anything about it and was told that was the point," she said with a little chuckle. "It's sure a great way to end my career."

Tubbs, who is set to retire at the end of January 2019, was honored in October with the Commissioner's Award for Distinguished Service in Community Health Services. The award, presented to Tubbs by Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm, recognizes individuals or groups who have contributed to advancement in the field of public health.

Kathy Werk and Greta Siegel, Horizon Public Health's assistant administrators, nominated Tubbs on behalf of the entire Horizon Public Health team. They submitted their nomination letter in July.

"It still baffles me," Tubbs said, "but I am so honored and thankful."

She was also thankful to be presented the award from Malcolm, having worked with her for numerous years and being someone she considered a good friend.

"It was really special to me to have her present the award to me," said Tubbs. "In my opinion, she's the best commissioner of health we've ever had."

A quick climb

Tubbs began her career in public health in 1986 as a public health nurse with Stevens Traverse Public Health. She was promoted to nursing supervisor the next year, and soon after became its director of public health, a position she held for a dozen years.

In 2001, she became director of what was known back then as Douglas County Public Health. She was the county's director until 2015, when Horizon Public Health was formed. The agency serves not only Douglas County but the counties of Grant, Pope, Stevens and Traverse, with Tubbs presiding over it as administrator.

In their nomination letter, Werk and Siegel said, "Throughout the years, the five counties have been connected as a Community Health Board, and through Sandy's vision, guidance and tenacity, a five-county Public Health department became a reality on Jan. 1, 2015 - Horizon Public Health."

They also said that all who know and have worked with Tubbs can attest that she is definitely one-of-a-kind in her unfailing commitment and passion to the mission of public health, which is to "work in partnership with individuals and communities in creating an environment that promotes the health and improves the well-being of all individuals."

Her greatest accomplishment

The merging of the five counties into one public health department didn't happen overnight. Tubbs said it took about three years. But, looking back over her career, it has been her biggest accomplishment.

"Without a doubt, I'm most proud of the tremendously successful Horizon Public Health," said Tubbs, noting that lots of people were involved in the merging of the departments.

The idea stemmed from conversations Tubbs had with Sharon Braaten, then the director of Pope County Public Health. Tubbs said they really started looking ahead at how public health could remain viable and strong in west-central Minnesota.

"We knew if we were going to do it, we had to do it now," she said. "We spent the next three years looking at the advantages and disadvantages, and looking at whether or not it was fiscally possible with all the programs and services offered through public health."

They took a long look at how a merger would affect the work they were doing in each of the communities - within the schools, hospitals and other business and organizations. They also applied for a grant through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to look at the feasibility of putting this all together. A process they thought would take two years ended up taking three years, she said, but the wait was worth it.

Horizon Public Health, with its 13-member board, has now been in place for four years. Tubbs has enthusiastically watched it all come together, and how the communities in each county embraced the newly-formed public health department. She called the support amazing and has enjoyed working with all the community partners.

Horizon Public Health has 85 employees, two assistant administrators and five supervisors. The department works with restaurant and hotel food safety enforcement, handles long-term care case management for the elderly and disabled, provides tobacco education and prevention, makes family home visits, and develops public health emergency preparedness, among other work.

"It's been good for all the counties involved," she said, adding that the smaller counties have more programs available to them now and all of the counties have a team of staff working with them with more access to services.

"The integration of these five counties has benefits for all involved. There are so many more advantages and it really has been a positive thing. It's been so fun to look at how far we've come."

Besides the programming and services, Tubbs said one of the biggest accomplishments is the reduction in tax levy dollars. Collectively, over the past two years, she said there has been a $400,000 decrease.

"And, we still have a healthy fund balance," she said. "We've definitely seen a positive financial impact, which is a huge success."

On her retirement, replacement

Tubbs plans to retire on Jan. 31, 2019, and take time off to vacation. However she doesn't see her retirement as an end of her work with public health or the community. She particularly enjoys program development, visioning and implementing new projects and strategic planning.

As for her replacement, Tubbs said Ann Stehn, who is currently the Health and Human Services director in Kandiyohi County, has been hired and will start Jan. 2.

"She is very experienced and she's got all the background; she'll just be learning our processes," said Tubbs. "She'll do a great job and I have no worries."

About this award

The Commissioner's Award for Distinguished Service in Community Health Services was created in 1992 to acknowledge long-term contributions, involvement, achievement and commitment. The recipients of this award have demonstrated these qualities, and have contributed to advancement within the public health field.