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Salem worries about future of health department

SALEM — City health officials expressed concern, sadness and frustration Wednesday over a state budget bill provision that could potentially shut down the city health district.

Nothing is approved yet, with the Ohio House set to vote on House Bill 110, which if passed would then go to the Ohio Senate and eventually hit the governor’s desk for his signature.

City Health Commissioner Alanna Stainbrook said she first learned about HB 110 and what it could mean for the city health department last week during a meeting of the Association of Ohio Health Commissioners.

A provision called for abolishment of boards of health in cities with a less than 50,000 population, which would include Salem, East Liverpool, Warren, Alliance and about 16 other city health districts across the state. In other words, the city health department would cease to exist and its duties would be assumed by the Columbiana County General Health District, located in Lisbon.

Board member Judy Sicilia said she was told by someone in state Rep. Tim Ginter’s office that the provision was taken out, but then Stainbrook received an email Wednesday saying the language had changed.

“Basically, they want us to evaluate how efficient and effective it would be to combine with the county general health district,” Stainbrook said.

According to an amendment, a copy which was sent to her by the AOHC, each city with a population less than 50,000 served by a board of health of a city health district would be required to “complete a study evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of merging with the general health district that includes the city for the administration of health affairs in the new general health district (the city plus the original health district).”

The Ohio Director of Health would be required to consult with the Auditor of State to develop criteria to use to determine whether a merger is advisable. The city would be required to conduct its evaluation using the developed criteria. If the study determines the merger is advisable, the city’s chief executive would have to contract with the district advisory council to include the city in the county general health district for administration of health affairs unless the district advisory council finds good cause to delay the merger.

State Rep. Tim Ginter defended his role in the bill’s negotiation, saying “in no way do I support the abolishment” of the county’s two city health departments, noting the value these offices have and the “minuscule amount of money” coming from the state to fund their operations.

“My goal is to preserve the health departments, not get rid of them,” he said.

Ginter noted that one of his colleagues had inserted an amendment into the bill that would do just that to all health departments serving less than 50,000 people.

However, the Salem legislator was able to insert his own amendment on Tuesday giving those departments 30 months in which to complete the study and prove that they should not be merged with county operations.

“This at least gives us two and a half years to live another day,” Ginter said, adding that he is confident the Salem and East Liverpool departments will survive.

Mayor John Berlin, who serves as chairman of the city health board by virtue of his position, said it’s early in the process and he doesn’t know at this point what it would cost the city if it had to go back to the county for health services.

“I think our health district is very strong. We provide a service to the community,” he said.

Stainbrook said they’ll continue to make contact with Ginter and contact state Sen. Michael Rulli about what the provision could mean to city residents who rely on the health department’s services. She also urged residents to contact Ginter and Rulli themselves.

“I think the community needs to know they may not have a city health department,” she said.

The city health department has been working nonstop since the pandemic began, first with contact tracing for those with the virus and family members or others exposed and quarantined, then with administering the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Right now we’ve got to prove ourselves, to show we are effective in the city. That’s not going to be hard to do,” Stainbrook said.

Both she and the mayor pointed out all the services the city health department provides, such as licensing and inspecting of all food service establishments and tattoo parlors, handling dog bite incidents, health nuisance complaints, providing immunizations for kids and adults, issuing birth and death certificates and monitoring communicable diseases.

Just last month, the department administered over 1200 doses of COVID-19 vaccine, including 503 first doses of Moderna, 538 second doses of Moderna and 200 doses of the one-dose J & J vaccine.

Stainbrook said it saddens her to know that “this is all our legislature thinks of us after all the work we’ve done.”

Lynle Hayes, who’s handling accreditation for the department, questioned why all the work done on that the last several years wouldn’t suffice instead of having to do a new survey.

Sicilia questioned what the real basis is for this survey, saying the language says the study will be to prove the effectiveness of a merger. She said the questions may be skewed to show efficiency and not look at the true picture. She said the legislators are looking at the big picture with money, but not at access to care. Many of the Guatemalan families use the health department’s services for childhood vaccinations.

Concern was also raised about the cost, if the city has to go back to the county, that it would be based on property values, not population.

The city previously was part of the county general health district, but then chose to go back to having a city health department several years ago.

The next meeting of the health board will be 2 p.m. May 26.

mgreier@salemnews.net

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