Public Health Programs Grow, But Funding Tight
By LINDA COMINS
For area health boards and health departments, improvements involve a wider range of vaccines and healthier environmental conditions, while continuing challenges stem from uncertainty over public health funding.
Howard Gamble, administrator of the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department, said immunizations, improved sanitation and environmental efforts to control diseases have resulted in long-term improvements in public health.
Three new programs in Ohio County are demonstrating innovative approaches to public health efforts. The top initiative, he said, is the health department’s efforts for homeless outreach. While other homeless programs assist with resources, clothing and housing, the health department’s outreach provides health services for the homeless population.
In this public health outreach, a team of voluneteers goes into the community every week to meet individuals’ needs. “It’s taking care of a population. It’s a new service to address a need,” he said.
As the second improvement, Gamble cited the department’s partnership with law enforcement and mental health professionals to conduct a needle exchange program to get dirty needles off the streets and reduce rates of infectious disease.
In another community partnership, the department provides naxolone to first responders and family members to save lives by reversing narcotic overdoses. “It’s a small effort, but it’s our effort to help with the overall opioid epidemic,” he said.
Gamble also lauded efforts to protect people from second-hand smoke.
The health board’s clean air regulation allows limited exemptions, but he said, “We are looking to making it stronger. We want to protect more people in the hopes that we have a more healthy society.”
In Belmont County, Robert Sproul, deputy county health commissioner, said, “We’ve increased the number of our programs … We’re working with more and new partners on initiatives.”
Jaclyn Yahn, community health educator for the Belmont County Health Department, said the department is partnering with 20 agencies on a variety of projects. “Collaborative efforts are definitely a good thing, a move in the right direction,” she said.
Sproul said more programs focus on children, while the number of efforts based on education and prevention also have increased. A new partnership is the department’s participation in the Ohio Valley Research Consortium, an effort to stem drug abuse in the region. Through Project DAWN, the department provides naxolone kits and training to first responders and others in the community, Yahn said.
Linda Mehl, director of nursing, said the number of immunizations performed at the department has increased in the past year.
The department’s obesity prevention program, offered in Bellaire and Shadyside schools initially, is expanding this year to include St. Clairsville and Union Local schools, Yahn said. To address child hunger, a new initiative is providing food every weekend to 300 Shadyside children who receive free or reduced-price lunch at school, she added.
Among the challenges, Sproul said, everyone employed in public health “wears many hats” because of limited resources. “The grant funding keeps dwindling. In many cases, funds were not there to begin with,” he said. “We get a lot of unfunded mandates from the state.”
In addition, Sproul said, “We’re also competing with non-health department agencies for grants … We’re competing with private industry for qualified staff.”
The health department has to pay for expenses such as electronic medical records and technology at a time when reimbursement has dropped, Sproul said.
Accreditation, mandated in Ohio by 2020, entails extra costs and requires staff time that would have been devoted to other services.
Likewise, in West Virginia, Gamble said, “What is the uncertainty to public health is funding, because that runs us … We run on what’s awarded to run our programs.”
Noting potential threats of communicable or infectious disease, Gamble said, “There are a lot of of challenges in public health. We will address them and do the best we can to make sure the problem is solved.”
Also signaling an optimistic note, Sproul said, “It’s a difficult struggle, but we’ll get there.”