Washington County health agency struggling to stay afloat

MARIETTA – Ohio Department of Health officials were apparently not aware of any financial problems at the Washington County Health Department until the local health board contacted ODH early this month.

The department is now in transition, having recently voted on the nonrenewal of its health commissioner to save money. Last week Washington County Board of Health president Richard Daniell announced the county health department has been operating in the red for the last three years, and had to borrow enough money from the county commissioners to make the first payroll of the month.

He said the financial crisis is due to less state and federal support.

However, state health officials had no knowledge of the three-year difficulties.

“The latest data reported to us showed $1.4 million in revenues, and expenses of $1.3 million, so the state department of health was seeing a carryover of around $100,000 (from 2011 to 2012),” said Tess Pollock with the ODH Office of Public Affairs.

That $100,000 could have been grant funding or money already committed, she said, although it’s not clear from the report.

The final report from 2012 is not yet available.

“This month was the first time the local board had expressed concern,” Pollock said. “We hosted a conference call with (deputy director) Martin Tremmel on Jan. 3 and they asked how we could help. So he offered some advice.”

Tremmel recommended the board appoint an interim part-time health commissioner by Jan. 8 to temporarily replace former health commissioner Kathleen Meckstroth whose contract was not renewed when it expired last month.

Meckstroth’s salary was $65,508, and she had not had a raise since 2008.

Tremmel also recommended hiring a full-time health commissioner and development of a business operations plan by July 1.

In addition he suggested approaching local city health departments in Belpre and Marietta to discuss shared services and possible mergers, as well as request a performance audit from the state.

“We have some financial experience at ODH, but not like the state auditor, so we referred the county health board to the auditor’s office,” Pollock said.

Daniell said he has asked Washington County Auditor Bill McFarland to look into the possibility of a performance audit, but noted such audits are costly.

Daniell said the state might front the county the money for the performance audit, but it would have to be paid back over a period of time.

“And we just paid $20,000 to the state auditor’s office for our last two-year audit,” Daniell added.

Dick Wittberg, a Washington County resident and executive director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department in Parkersburg, has volunteered to cover as interim health commissioner until the part-time position can be filled.

He confirmed Wednesday that he’s in the very preliminary stages of contacting health department officials in Belpre and Marietta about the possibility of consolidating into a regional facility with the county department, as recommended by ODH.

“Across the river I run a regional department for six counties and have a solid budget,” he said. “And I want to see the same thing for Washington County. I’m not being paid to do this, but I can see the great possibilities of reaching out and bringing the county and city departments together. I think this is really worth doing.”

Pollock said consolidation of county and municipal health departments is not a unique idea to Washington County. She said mergers of services have taken place in the Akron area and in Marion County.

“It’s not required, but we want to do what’s best for the community,” Pollock said. “And that’s a conversation the local health board members will have to consider for themselves.”

She said ODH can offer support, but county health departments are basically home rule entities when it comes to local decisions.

“But we’re continuing to work very closely with the Washington County Health Department,” Pollock added.

In spite of the ongoing fiscal concerns, it’s business as usual for clients at the Washington County Health Department, according to staff members.

“The only thing that’s changed right now is we’ve run out of some flu vaccine, but we’re expecting another shipment this week,” said Ken Robinson, environmental health director and interim administrator for the health department.

He said the general public should see no difference in services as the department continues to wrestle with financial issues that resulted in the non-renewal of Meckstroth’s contract last month and could threaten operations at the Southeastern Ohio Dental Clinic.

“Right now the thing that’s of most concern is the dental clinic that’s partially funded by a $59,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Health,” Robinson said, noting the grant has not been renewed this year.

Pollock explained that grant funding comes to ODH through the federal government, and there had been cuts in the amount provided to the state this year, so the dental clinic grant was not awarded.

More patients at the dental clinic would be a big help, Robinson said, in addition to fewer patients not showing up for appointments.

“A lot of people make appointments, then they just don’t show up and don’t call in to cancel,” he explained. “That happens four or five times a day sometimes. But not getting that $59,000 grant has really hurt. That’s a lot of money we have to make up.”

Other health department services are expected to continue without interruption, including regular inspections for sewage and water permits, inspection of facilities and licensing of food services, campground licensing and inspections, investigation of tobacco smoking complaints in public establishments, and investigation of property nuisance complaints.

“Nuisance complaint services could be reduced as it’s not a major priority, and we’re not paid to do that,” Robinson said.

Nursing services are also continuing as usual, according to registered nurse Cindy Hintz who has been the interim director of nursing at the health department for five months now.

“We’re still holding our regular clinics at the health department as well as monthly clinic visits to outlying senior centers in Beverly, Little Hocking, New Matamoras, Churchtown, and Layman,” she said.

The clinic services include blood sugar and blood pressure checks, flu shots, immunizations for children and teens as well as shots for tetanus and pneumonia when needed.

“The monthly clinics are also an outreach for the department and gives me a chance to provide some education in those communities about various health issues and other services we have available,” Hintz said.

In addition to clinics at the health department and in outlying districts, Hintz said she also continues to follow up and investigate infectious disease reports.

“It can be overwhelming, but I do get a lot of support from directors of nursing at other county health departments,” she said. “And we’re not looking at closing down services by any means.”