Centre officials say ‘no’ to county health department | Centre County Gazette

BELLEFONTE — There will be no Center County Health Department, at least for the foreseeable future.

Michael Pipe, chair of the Board of Commissioners, made the announcement during a recent meeting.

“Although we had really compelling information and data on health information within Center County, as we’ve talked through some of our budget discussions … we have a lean budget, a focused budget,” Pipe said. “This is going to be a big lift. … I think many of us believe that this is not the appropriate time for the county to create a health office.”

Discussions of a county health department began at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. These discussions prompted a feasibility study, which gave the commissioners a chance to look more closely at the numbers and costs, whether the project was practical.

In the end, Pipe said, it wasn’t.

“There’s a lot of unknown costs that other counties — not only in Pennsylvania, but in other states — have seen. … Because of that and other reasons as well, I think we can agree that it’s not the best time to do this,” Pipe said.

Several counties in Pennsylvania have their own health departments. Those counties include Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Erie, Montgomery and Philadelphia. County health departments tend to be in densely populated urban areas.

Center County doesn’t fit that bill.

There are also four municipal health departments. Those municipalities include Allentown, Bethlehem, Wilkes-Barre and York.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s website, Act 315 is Pennsylvania’s Local Health Administration Law.

It provides funding to improve local health administration by authorizing state grants to counties and to certain municipalities which have established departments of health and meet certain prescribed requirements.

Those health departments secure additional funding through categorical grants from the state and federal governments and through local funds. Services are aimed at improving the respective community’s public health through the provision of direct health services, health education and community health leadership and control. Emphasis is placed on primary and secondary preventive health services. The overall goal of these programs is to reduce morbidity and mortality among the local service population and to promote healthy lifestyles.

Commissioner Mark Higgins said the cost of a county health department outweighed the benefits.

“The costs were potentially substantially higher than the initial estimates,” Higgins said. “The possibility of state grants covering a significant fraction of the costs appeared to be not very likely.”

Higgins also said there was some confusion about exactly what the role of a county health department is.

“There were some misperceptions on the board that there might be some possibility of providing direct medical care to citizens of Center County, especially in rural areas. That also does not appear to be covered by a health department of this type. I think it drastically lowered our appetite for this project,” Higgins said.

Commissioner Steve Dershem agreed with his colleagues.

“When you come down to the fact that you have to hire doctors and other medical staff and all the other administrative fees and costs, … I just don’t think it’s a win for us right now. I would wholeheartedly agree that this is a good time to table this conversation,” Dershem said.

State College Borough could still create its own health department down the road. Pipe said the county would assist with that.

“If there’s any help that we can provide, or any support we can provide to State College Borough, I think we’re happy to do so. But we did want to notify them prior to the end of the year so they could go in the direction they see best fit,” Pipe said.

According to Pipe, while the initial report did not fully estimate the costs involved, the county did look at other counties and municipalities to gauge costs.

“It did not specifically pinpoint or analyze a cost. We had requested an additional addendum. That was provided, but it was only provided at a base minimum,” Pipe said, “and if you look at any other county health office in the state — or some of the cities that have them — none of them do the minimum. Rather than go out for another consulting round, it was clear that there wasn’t an appetite at that time.”

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