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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

LV Health Department Needs Undertaker

If last night's meeting of the LV Health Commission is any indication, the Lehigh Valley Health Board is in a hospice, with an undertaker on his way for a closed casket funeral. Public health looks pretty sick in the Lehigh Valley.

The LV Health Comm'n is actually the combined legislatures of Lehigh and Northampton County. Last night, Lehigh County played host at its meeting room in downtown Allentown, which was packed with about fifty people, most of them public health workers or advocates.

Twenty-seven foot John Stoffa dropped by, festooned in his Sherlock Holmes hat, and sat right next to RenewLV's Beata Bujalska. "Hello, I'm a doctor," he told her. I warned Beata to keep her eyes on him, but she still had to mace him a few times before he finally got the message.

"Don't judge me, dude," is all my County Exec could say when the meeting was over.

Unlike last year, when one meeting actually had to be canceled because Northampton County was unable to come up with a quorum, there were seven Council members on hand to match the seven Lehigh Comm'rs.

Now this meeting should have lasted about ten seconds, long enough to elect Percy Dougherty as chair (nominated by Ron Angle) and Ann McHale as vice-chair (nominated by Dean Browning).

But Dr. David Lyon, who has been the primus pilus for Lehigh Valley public health, decided to give a presentation about the LV Health Department's progress. Big mistake. He compounded that error by presenting a "worst case scenario," under which each county would have to kick in approximately $1.7 million. To make matters even worse, he claimed there are only about 35 public employees in Allentown and Bethlehem, when the truth is that Allentown alone has 36 employees. Commissioners and Council members alike began to express reservations.

Glenn Eckhart, noting there are 66 current employees in Bethlehem and Allentown, questioned how hiring an additional 20 will give residents in outlying areas the same level of service as in the cities. He also questioned whether the cities will contribute to the cost.

Dean Browning noted that each county only generates about $100 million per year in real estate tax revenue. "1.7 million out of a $100 million budget might be more than some of us are willing to bear."

Bruce Gilbert echoed Eckhart's concerns about whether 20 new employees can provide the same level of service as 66 employees in Bethlehem and Allentown. He also wondered why local hospitals are not kicking into this effort.

Percy Dougherty, "very disappointed" by the lack of detail, thought we would have the hard numbers by now.

Ann McHale suggested letting the voters decide what to do, in a non-binding referendum, but nobody went along with that idea.

Tom Creighton called the bi-county health department a "waste of money." "We're just creating more government here."

Ron Angle cross-examined Dr. Lyon about the health department's commitment to Allentown and Bethlehem. "It doesn't match up. You're saying that, with 95 people, you'll cover two counties." He also wondered whether municipalities will have to fire their sewage enforcement officers, now that the LV Health Department wants to take over. "This sounds great, but in the big picture, people all over the two counties are gonna' want to hear that they're getting what Allentown and Bethlehem already have. It's that simple. ... You are not going to do that for pennies a day in the real world."

Dr. Lyon tried to minimize this objection, noting that needs will be different in areas outside Bethlehem and Allentown.

The LV Health Department does have its share of supporters, including Peg Ferraro, Dan McCarthy, Gloria Hamm and Andy Roman. But then Roman described a pretty strange public health department, one that looks for dirty bombs and bio terrorism. Roman has public health confused with emergency management.

Members of the public have similarly unrealistic expectations, viewing a public health department as some sort of Deus Ex Machina. One Emmaus Senior noted that her highrise was without water for a week. She thinks a public health department will solve that problem. It won't. A Williams Township resident thinks a public health department will stop unpleasant odors at Chrin landfill. It won't.

By night's end, Dr. Lyon was reassuring Commissioners and Council members he will probably only be seeking a couple hundred thousand per county, but they are now thinking of a department that will quickly start demanding more money. His "worst case scenario" may have been the worst case he could have presented.

Dr. Lyon conceded he's no salesman. No argument there.

Right now, it appears that the LV Health Department is dead. Northampton County: Angle, McClure, Thierry, Gilbert, Dietrich, Cusick and even McHale have concerns. Lehigh County: Dougherty, Browning, Eckhart and Creighton have reservations, and Leiner just resigned. To go forward, the LV Health Department will need five votes from each county.

I support this concept, and believe it could work. But for the next several years, that can happen only if the LV Health Department relies exclusively on whatever grant money it secures elsewhere.


Anonymous said...

These are the very concerns some smart and knowledgable people were expressing for a few years. They were mocked as nay sayers, yet they were merely telling the truth.

Facts are facts this thing will at the "very least" cost the counties $2 million a year each. Wthin five years it will cost the counties about $4-5 million each a year.

Enough with the this is a great concept crap. So is mana from heaven but it ain't gonna happen. This has been a con job by advocates and the editorial boards ever since the Lehigh Valley Partnership decided to ram it down the peoples throat.

Part of the reason the new Northampton County Councilmemebers were elected was to end this nonsense.

Vote next week and kill it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this description of what happened last night. Just spoke with someone who attended the meeting. Said "We are going to pay for this. We are taxed to death."

Folks don't realize how much money is required from each county to fund this project. Please keep on the money trail. Please keep posting.

Anonymous said...

off topic here - does anyone know if the commitment to webcast the council meetings starting this month is still active?

Anonymous said...

And little secret that is not being told to the public so that this thing can be sold to them is that there are public health offices outside the cities of Allentown and Bethlehem. One offices covers Easton- ever notice that there is never any mention of the Easton Health Bureau? And there are 2 PA DOH offices in the Lehigh Valley that do the same things as the city ones do- one in Whitehall and the other is in Wilson Boro. They just don't stand up on chairs waving their arms screaming look at me- They do they job well and quietly.

Bernie O'Hare said...

usa1, There has been no commitment to webcast in LC. As I've already mentioned, the last NC meeting was webcast as a dry run. So far as I know, the next meeting will be live.

Anonymous said...

Why move on any of these nebulous plans until the national debate is resolved?

If it was a good idea, it would have far more momentum than it currently does. Stand down and regroup - or not.

Anonymous said...

In the original post, Ron Angle said...

"This sounds great, but in the big picture, people all over the two counties are gonna' want to hear that they're getting what Allentown and Bethlehem already have."

I'm not sure what Bethlehem has, but Allentown has a bloated department that has had time to go off on political tangents (i.e. gun control issues) over the years. Allentown has also managed to force large groups of people (including seniors and children) to STAND in line - outside and in the elements - for swine flu shots. At the same time, Lehigh Valley Hospital is able to vaccinate (for seasonal flu) much larger numbers of people (in both counties) while patients wait in the convenience of their own cars.

The best thing that could happen for the counties is that this idea dies a quick death.

Anonymous said...

where do you watch the NC webcast next meeting?

Bernie O'Hare said...

USA1, I will run that info in the next week or so.

Anonymous said...

With mandatory federal health insurance (Obamacare), why would a health department be needed? The federal government will be providing for the care of ALL citizens. Further, with federal tax increases, how much more can we pay at the local level. Its time to kill this local health bureau now. Since the federal government is requiring health care for all, we simply can not afford this local program.

Andy Roman said...

A modern Health Department would be a strong guardian of protection for the residents of the Lehigh Valley. This isn't Mayberry. The Lehigh Valley is the 3rd largest metropolitian area in PA.

And yes, a quality health department would be instrumental in Lehigh/Northampton County fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities of providing for the Public Health & Safety of each County resident. Safety, which certainly includes Emergency Management.

Just ask the director of the Allentown Health Bureau and she will tell you the wide spectrum of catastrophy scenario's that we must be prepared for.

Imagine the panic of a bio-terrorist act of our food supply being poisoned and 5,000 people flock to area hospitals with high fevers, vomitting and convulsions and we had no capacity or command and control to handle such an incident because we were so shortsighted and foolish?

Right now there is no central authority to direct such a response effort. Our current system is fragmented and incapable of addressing a significant event. A Health department would provide that central authority.

If the County government doesn't provide for public health & safety in an age of terrorism, then what exactly is the primary role of government?

What better method than local government and local control over protecting our citizens?

Just ask the victims of Katrina who were waiting on the State & Federal Government.

I believe this debate should start with the "value" a modern health department would provide given the threats that exist before we argue about the "cost".

Cost is only a primary issue in the abscence of value.

Once value is established then a cost/benefit analysis should be conducted and only then can an intelligent decision be made.

I hope this entry will add to an intelligent discussion of a very important issue and that is Public Health & Safety in an age of Terrorism.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Andy, I support the concept of a health department, but not if the price tag is $1.7 MM per county. Both counties, as you know, are facing major tax hikes. That's why initially, there should be no demand for any funding, which was the basis under which this exploration originally started.

You state the case for public health well, and I will load your comment as a separate blog. I suspect that many of your conservative allies will see this differently, but your argument may be persuasive.

Anonymous said...

If a pandemic strikes and 5000 people flood local hospitals, I think the important question is what does a new bureaucray do?

The idea that a Lehigh Valley Health Department is somehow going to dimminsih the effects of a run on the hospitals under panic conditions is a costly placebo and unrealistic.

This in theory is a fine idea but not practical. In a disaster a health department can do what? Tell a parent to not take their kids to the hospital. Do you think a paniced nervous parent with a sick child is going to care what another bureaucrat in a cheap yellow vest says.

A health Department is a marketing tool of the Lehigh Valley Partnership, so I am not surprised you will get some mainstream Republican support. In a weird marriage of sorts, it is also a favorite of the liberals who see it as another layer of public (free) health services. Wait until the welfare cases in the majority of PA, that doesn't have these clinics hears about this.

Sorry, the 911 terrorist card may have been successgully used to limit our Constitutional rights but I think it is really pathetic to use it as the red flag to rally support for a job producing expensive and unneccessary local quazi-governmental agency that will grow larger year in and yrear out.

Anonymous said...

"USA1, I will run that info in the next week or so.

2:26 PM"

on webcasting NC