An ongoing discussion among the Kent State University College of Public Health and Portage County's three health departments about shared services and potential mergers has been reinvigorated by a $125,000 grant from the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The two-year grant, announced Thursday, will be used by the College of Public Health to conduct an in-depth study of how the Kent, Ravenna and Portage County health departments can save money and improve care by sharing resources.
KSU officials have been moderating a discussion on shared services between the county's three health departments since February 2011, when the departments' boards all agreed to a university study on whether sharing services or merging could save money without diluting the quality of service to the public.
Ken Slenkovich, the assistant dean of the College of Public Health, said the grant will allow the college's faculty to take a closer look at the potential for shared services in the county's health departments, and share the university's research with the rest of the country.
"Now we have the resources to actually fund faculty and staff who can do more in-depth analysis," he said. "The other part is, this is a national effort. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is funding a number of these (grants) across the country and the idea is to pool those lessons learned from these different projects."
Kelly Engelhart, service director for Ravenna, noted that of 18 communities across the nation to get grants, Portage County was the only community in Ohio selected for a grant and KSU was the only university in the country to receive funding.
"It's a huge opportunity, we're really excited by it," Engelhart said.
She said the focus of the grant is to study ways the departments could share services and increase efficiencies.
"We want to look at what services are currently provided, what are required essential services for public health departments, and how can we improve those services if we do them collaboratively."
Engelhart said the study could result in important changes in public health in Portage County with significant opportunities to improve public health services.
"Robert Wood Johnson is the public health foundation in the United States," said DuWayne Porter, health commissioner for the county department. "They don't come very often to health departments the size of Portage County, Ravenna and Kent. It's a very prestigious grant."
Kent Health Commissioner Jeff Neistadt, said studying how the departments could share resources makes sense because they already share many of the same obstacles and challenges, from stretching their funding to combating obesity and smoking.
"We're all in the business of public health," he said. "High smoking rates don't stop at the Franklin Township border."
The three local health departments paid for the grant application, which was written by KSU.
Representatives of the three departments and KSU will attend a meeting March 13-14 in Kansas City to get started on the study. John Hoornbeek, associate professor of health policy and management at KSU, said local public health officials may travel to view shared service and consolidation efforts at work in other communities, or even host an event in Kent.
"We do anticipate and plan to engage with folks as close as Summit County," he said, noting the Summit County, Akron and Barberton health departments merged two years ago.
Porter said the College of Public Health "has been tremendous in helping with public health in Portage County."
Slenkovich said the study could lead to recommendations as simple as holding one immunization clinic in a central location, instead of multiple clinics throughout the county, to recommendations as complex as a merger between two or three of the departments.
"Instead of having two accounting departments, maybe they can share some resources that way," he said. "It could potentially also lead to, maybe (the health departments) decide that, rather than just sharing resources, it makes more sense to consolidate into one health department."
Ravenna Mayor Joe Bica, who originally convened the task force two years ago, said "the vision has always been to reinvent public health in Portage County and to really increase the services we provide for our residents."
"Our research and all the things we've done to this point in collaboration, all lead us to we are much stronger together in regard to public health than we are as independent entities."
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