Sharing public health
resources in Portage County is an idea that deserves serious consideration because of the potential for cost savings and improved services likely to result if the three health agencies now in operation combine activities.
The Portage County Health Department and the municipal agencies serving the cities of Kent and Ravenna have been discussing ways to coordinate services since 2011, when Ravenna Mayor Joe Bica convened a task force to study the issue. Kent State University's College of Public Health also has been an important partner in the discussion.
The ongoing discussion stands to benefit greatly from a $125,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which will fund an in-depth study by the College of Public Health focusing on sharing services and resources. The two-year study also will address the pros and cons of a merger of the health departments, an idea which appears to have limited support.
One issue that must be addressed is adequate funding for public health agencies. While the Kent and Ravenna health departments are funded by their respective cities, the Portage County Health Department has been hampered in its ability to provide services because voters have repeatedly rejected additional funding for it. The county department, incredibly, operates on a funding base dating to 1955; no additional tax request put forward since then has ever been approved.
Local health officials, to their credit, realize that public health is not a parochial concern. As Kent Health Commissioner Jeff Neistadt said, "We're all in the business of public health. High smoking rates don't stop at the Franklin Township border."
There already is interaction between the three health departments. The Portage County department has played the lead role in immunization activities for major public health concerns and also worked closely with the Kent department to deal with a food contamination issue that posed a major health risk. There also is considerable interaction between the county health department and the Ravenna department.
The study also is likely to address broadening the scope of public health in Portage County to include preventative measures and wellness activities, important concerns that are now shortchanged because of funding and staffing limitations.
Kent State's involvement in the discussion is important, too, because the College of Public Health is uniquely positioned to play an important role in helping to facilitate a sharing of resources and, ideally, a merger of the agencies.
The possibility of a formal relationship between the College of Public Health and the local public health agencies that would include utilizing Kent State resources ought to be addressed. The college could assist the agencies with administrative and organizational concerns. Another possibility would be to use KSU student interns as supplementary staff; students pursuing public health careers could gain hands-on experience, while the local health agencies could benefit from the additional personnel.
An approach to public health involving Kent State working in collaboration with local agencies could become a national model. With the advent of "Obamacare," government will be taking on an increasing role in health care. A public-private partnership, with Kent State playing a pioneer role, could be the wave of the future.