Proposal would transform county-run health departments

Without a reprieve from pension-contribution rules, 42 county health departments will close in the next year, and 22 more will the following year, says the Department of Public Health, which made this map.

Earlier this spring, the Marshall County Health Department announced it was discontinuing the school health program and maternity services, saying a 41% increase amounting to an additional $560,000 to the Kentucky Retirement System was creating financial hardships on the agency.

Marshall County's Health Department is not alone in facing the skyrocketing pension costs and now Kentucky's health commissioner is proposing a new model for the delivery of services.

Under the gun of the new pension rules, Kentucky's health commissioner wants local health departments to drastically cut services, but he says the departments need the legislature to give them one more reprieve from big pension bills that would put dozens of them out of business in the next 12 months.

Dr. Jeffrey Howard, the health commissioner, says his plan calls for a system that would assure the survival of public health in the state, and would ultimately improve the state's health outcomes.

Howard created this new model largely in response to the state's pension crisis, which on July 1 will require health departments to increase their pension obligation from 49.47 percent to 83.43 percent of payroll -- unless a special session of the General Assembly changes that.

In the regular session that ended in April, Gov. Matt Bevin vetoed a bill that would have offered some temporary relief to health departments. He has said he will call a special session to deal with the issue, but he and legislators have yet to secure the agreement and votes needed to pass a bill into law.

Without any relief from this added pension contribution and everything remaining the same, Howard's Department of Public Health says 42 health departments would close in the next 12 months, and 22 more would run out of reserves and be forced to close in the the next 24 months.

Howard says the crisis has created an opportunity.

He told a statewide board of health meeting in January that the state can take the opportunity to move away from a public-health system that is "an inch deep and a mile wide" and transform it in a way that will improve health outcomes across the state. "This is truly an opportunity to transform a system that has needed transforming for many decades," he said at the meeting.

Howard's plan calls for departments to scale back their services, and only be required to provide four "core public health" areas. He said it doesn't matter if the department implements these programs or if a community partner does, only that the department is committed to making sure they are in place.

The core areas include: foundational public health services, five areas that are required by law or regulation; the Women's, Infants and Children nutrition program; the HANDS program, which stands for Health Access Nurturing Development Services for child rearing; and harm reduction and substance-use disorder programs, including syringe exchanges.

The plan also requires health departments to perform community health assessments, which many of them already do, to determine their local public health priorities beyond those core requirements.

However, under Howard's new plan, before a department could implement a program to address a local need, such as diabetes management, it must first see if the need is already being addressed elsewhere, and if it is, they would be asked to work with that agency to either support or complement its program instead of creating a new one.

If the need is not being met in their community, a department would then have to present its proposed program to a newly formed advisory board, which would review the request to make sure it meets a list of five criteria, including whether it is data-driven, offers an evidence-based solution, is adequately funded, includes a performance and quality management plan; and has an exit strategy.

At the January meeting, Howard said the plan has the support of the Kentucky Health Departments Association, the Kentucky Association of Local Boards of Health, the Kentucky Public Health Association and the University of Kentucky's Center of Excellence in Rural Health. The health-department association has long promoted a similar model called "Public Health 3.0," on which Howard's plan is based.

Howard said the plan also has the support of his colleagues at the health department and Gov. Matt Bevin. He said it will be introduced to lawmakers during the 2020 session, noting that it will require "some overwhelming legislative buy-in." He also said he needs lawmakers to hold the pension rate at 49.47% for one more year to give him time to get this plan in place.

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