Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Lehigh Valley Health Department Remains In Limbo
"We feel as though we are in limbo," she complained.
The LV Health Commission is comprised of the combined county legislators of the Lehigh Valley, making it an unwieldy 18-member body whose actions require a majority vote from both Northampton and Lehigh. All nine Northampton County Council members attended the meeting being hosted in Allentown, but ironically, only Lehigh County Commissioners Percy Dougherty, Dan McCarthy, Vic Mazziotti and Scott Ott were present for a meeting on their own home field.
"We're outdone in our own back yard," joked Dougherty.
In October, Prokup and other local public health advocates proposed a five-year plan for four offices in Bethlehem, Allentown, Bangor and Slatington, requiring a $450,000 annual contribution from each County. County officials decided to delay a decision until after the election. Now, with eight new members in the governing bodies of both counties, Percy Dougherty stated that a new presentation would be helpful. He also suggested, as he did in October, that perhaps the voters should weigh in on this decision by referendum.
Those who did have questions were particularly bothered by the lack of cash assistance from area hospital. "We made the deliberate decision not to seek funds from the individual hospitals," stated Prokup, who explained they already provide a "tremendous amount of in-kind services." She also noted a potential conflict of interest because a public health department has regulatory authority over hospitals. But Lehigh's Vic Mazziotti noted that receiving in-kind services would create a potential conflict of interest, too.
Percy Dougherty agreed that area hospitals should provide "hard cash," but noted a ruling last year providing that cash contributions made directly from hospitals to the health bureau would be ineligible for state matching purposes.
Northampton County Executive John Stoffa solved that problem, noting that instead of giving the money directly to the health bureau, hospitals could contribute to the counties. "$250,000 is a quarter in their pockets," he argued, suggesting that a pitch be made directly to the Trustees at each major hospital.
Northampton's Lamont McClure worried that a LV Health Department could become a "bureaucratic leviathon," with rising County contributions. But Prokup answered that the Health Commission could simply refuse to fund the budget, as has already been done. "Just don't fund it," she suggested.
Mazziotti also questioned the empirical data that establishes that public health is better in Allentown and Bethlehem, which have public health departments, than it is in the rest of the Lehigh Valley. Prokup acknowledged her data are insufficient to answer that question.
Noting that the state has seen a decrease in revenue, Northampton's John Cusick wondered whether that would affect public health. He also pointed to layoffs last year in Bethlehem's health department. Because they have not really met since last October, Prokup stated the Health Department has had no opportunity to consider the impact of any budgetary cuts.
Before they adjourned, Dougherty assured Prokup and other public health advocates that each County will "hit the ground running" and have a decision by July. "It's only fair that we give you a decision as soon as possible," he acknowledged.
Until then, the unfunded LV Health Department will remain in limbo.