Center County: Expert Talks Positives About Bill 315 Health Department

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The Willowbank building in Bellefonte on Tuesday December 8, 2020.

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A local consultant gave a public presentation on Friday that summarized the benefits 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.

Public health accreditation expert Grace Gorenflo plans to release her full report on both the borough and county in the coming days. She was tasked late last year, in a joint county and borough effort, to assess the feasibility of creating a local Bill 315 health department, which would allow the region to better tailor public health programs and services to its needs.

But the main concern, or downside, has always been cost. In 2020, County Commissioner Steve Dershem called the potential new health service an “incredibly expensive undertaking”. And, on Friday afternoon, he was the first to ask about costs – before being told that a budget was beyond the scope of Gorenflo’s study and that early estimates were difficult to obtain due to variables such as changing state health department requirements.

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

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

Borough spokeswoman Kayla Lafferty acknowledged that the full report will be posted on the borough’s website once received.

Clarity seemed to be coming to who a new health service would benefit the most. Since the state always has the same basic staffing needs, regardless of population size – a health director, an environmental health director, a nursing director, and a physician (subject to waiver) – of course, any new health department could just as well serve a larger area, like the county instead of just State College, especially because the borough already tends to influence county health statistics by because of its concentrated population.

Gorenflo has been trying to see if the Central region could qualify for its own health service, but the Commonwealth has yet to allow several municipalities in a county to form their own. She hopes for an answer next week. But local officials seemed to take his explanation as a sign that having a countywide Law 315 health department would make the most sense, should they decide to go ahead.

“It seems that at least for the borough-specific system, that doesn’t seem to make much sense – does it?” Councilor Gopal Balachandran asked, before Gorenflo hinted that he was right.

The positive aspects of creating a Bill 315 health department are many, Gorenflo said. Penns Valley might not qualify for public health grants because Center County looks good on paper, but, with a Bill 315 health department, data might be collected only on the Penns Valley area for allow for more grant opportunities. During the pandemic, county health departments were able to secure COVID-19 testing faster than counties without departments. And the data would be collected in more detail, to enable more reactive and proactive health policies.

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

Gorenflo recommended founding a new county health department in Bellefonte, close to other county government agencies.

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

Law 315, the State Local Health Administration Act, provides funds to improve local health administration and helps counties and municipalities establish health departments. Currently, seven counties and four municipal health departments are funded through Bill 315, the most recent being Delaware County.

Josh Moyer received his BA in Journalism from Penn State and his MS from Columbia. He has been involved in news and sports writing for almost 20 years. He boasts the best athlete he’s ever seen as Tecmo Super Bowl’s Bo Jackson.