Center County: Expert talks positives on Act 315 Health Department

The Willowbank Building in Bellefonte on Tuesday, Dec.  8, 2020.

The Willowbank Building in Bellefonte on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.

adrey@centredaily.com

A local consultant offered a public presentation Friday that summarized the positives of creating a new health department for Center County or State College Borough, but the ultimate question – how much is it going to cost? – remains unknown.

Grace Gorenflo, an expert on public health accreditation, expects to issue her full report to both the borough and county in the coming days. She was tasked late last year, in a joint effort by the county and borough, to gauge the feasibility of establishing a local Act 315 Health Department, which would allow the area to better tailor public health programs and services to its needs.

But the main concern, or drawback, has always been cost. In 2020, County Commissioner Steve Dershem labeled the potential new health department an “incredibly expensive endeavor.” And, on Friday afternoon, he was the first to ask about cost – before being told a budget was outside the scope of Gorenflo’s study and that early estimates were difficult to come by due to variables such as shifting requirements by the state Department of Health.

“We have a lot of information we need to move forward, but we don’t have enough yet to come up with a sound estimate,” Gorenflo said.

The potential cost would not be revealed unless the county and / or borough decide to move forward with a Phase 2 study, when projected start-up costs and annual costs would be revealed. It was not immediately clear when the decision to move forward would be made or whether the public would be able to comment at the next meeting, but county Commissioner Mike Pipe told the CDT officials would “regroup” after receiving the full report.

Borough spokesperson Kayla Lafferty acknowledged the full report would be publicly posted on the borough’s website, once it is received.

Clarity did appear to come at whom a new health department would benefit most. Because the state still has the same core staff requirements regardless of population size – a health director, environmental health director, nursing director and physician (subject to waiver) – it stands to reason that any new health department might as well serve a larger area, such as the county instead of just State College, especially because the borough already tends to influence county health statistics because of its concentrated population.

Gorenflo attempted to see whether the Center Region might qualify for its own health department, but the commonwealth hasn’t yet allowed multiple municipalities within a county to form their own. She’s hoping for an answer next week. But local officials appeared to take her explanation as a sign that having a countywide Act 315 Health Department would make the most sense, if they decide to move forward.

“It sounds like at least for the borough-specific system, it doesn’t seem like that makes a lot of sense – right?” Councilman Gopal Balachandran asked, before Gorenflo intimated he was correct.

The positives to establishing an Act 315 Health Department are numerous, Gorenflo said. Penns Valley might not qualify for public-health grants because Center County looks good on paper but, with an Act 315 Health Department, data could be collected on just the Penns Valley area to allow for more grant opportunities. During the pandemic, county health departments were able to secure COVID-19 tests more quickly than counties without the departments. And data would be collected in a more detailed way, to allow for better reactive and proactive health policies.

For example, Gorenflo said, she knows Center County had 363 animal bites that were handled by nurses in 2020. But she doesn’t know if they were concentrated in one area or not. Under an Act 315 Health Department, she would know that – and, with that knowledge, might be able to offer preventative measures in any concentrated areas. In 2020, Center County also had 26 cases of children with blood lead poisoning, but no prevention measures have been implemented. With an Act 315 Health Department, that could change.

Gorenflo recommended basing a new county health department in Bellefonte, near other county government agencies.

Friday’s joint work session with borough council, the county commissioners and the borough board of health lasted 90 minutes and did not allow for public comment. Council President Jesse Barlow said “additional public meetings” would be held with public comment, but it was not immediately known when such meetings would be scheduled.

Act 315, the state local health administration law, provides funding to improve local health administration and assists counties and municipalities in establishing health departments. Currently, there are seven county and four municipal health departments funded by Act 315 – with the most recent being Delaware County.

Josh Moyer earned his BA in journalism from Penn State and his MS from Columbia. He’s been involved in sports and news writing for nearly 20 years. He counts the best athlete he’s ever seen as Tecmo Super Bowl’s Bo Jackson.

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