Friday, January 07, 2022

Is It Time for a NorCo Health Department?

Although there are over 2,800 local public health departments in the U.S., only 10 are in Pennsylvania. According to the state Department of Health (DOH), six counties (Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Erie, Montgomery and Philadelphia) and four cities (Allentown, Bethlehem, Wilkes-Barre and York) have their own local public health departments. Is it time for one in Northampton County? That question was posed by Executive Lamont McClure at last night's County Council meeting. He informed them that he is seeking proposals (called RFPs) from several leading academic institutions to study the feasibility of a county public health department. If he decides it is, he'll be back.

About ten years ago, both Lehigh and Northampton Counties considered, but ultimately rejected, a bi-county health department. Former NorCo Exec John Stoffa argued for this regionalism, noting that a contagious disease knows no boundaries. There were numerous fierce advocates, including NorCo Council member Peg Ferraro and LC Comm'r Percy Dougherty. But the price tag, lack of financial assistance from wealthy area hospitals and an added layer of government bureaucracy, doomed it. 

"Why create a health department when we can't afford the level of government we have now?" asked then Council member Ron Angle. "Why lead people on such a trip if you don't have the ability to buy a car?" 

At the time it was under consideration, it would have cost both counties about $500,000 per year and would have absorbed separate health departments within the cities. McClure indicated last night that the annual cost of a stand-alone county department would be $1.6 million per year. But he added that the County will be receiving at least $33 million from the federal government this year, which would solve funding for several years. 

There was a question whether a regional department would have been beneficial to anyone outside the cities. Would someone in Portland or Slatington really be helped the same way as someone living in the heart of the Lehigh Valley's cities? Proponents thought so, but others were dubious. 

This includes then Council member Lamont McClure.  He opposed a regional public health department. He continues to be skeptical of a regional approach and last night worried about an "unresponsive bureaucrat" ignoring the rural areas of the county/ He believes a stand-alone county agency, however, would be more responsive.

If a county public health department made a difference in fighting the pandemic, this would be a no-brainer. But as McClure himself acknowledged last night, they made none. His argument, however, is that a county health department can perform numerous other public health initiatives, from rabies warnings to drug addiction to maternal care.  There are still numerous negatives.

First of these is the concern that we are creating an unelected "unresponsive bureaucrat" who is just as likely to ignore areas away from Bethlehem and Easton as the reviled bi-county health department.  We all think of the cities as most in need of public health because of the underlying poverty. But there's a need in places like Bangor, too. Several students at their schools describe a cesspool of overt (not subtle) racism and poverty, where drug sales are just as common as in any urban core. Public health might make a difference, but would a county health department really give a shit about anyone outside the cities?

Second, I am very concerned that McClure might be bailing out a financially distressed Bethlehem, which raises taxes as often as a bulldog farts. He indicated last night that he's been discussing the matter with Mayor Willie Reynolds. This might be more of a Bethlehem bailout than an actual desire to address public health. 

Third, public health officials are currently about as popular as elections officials. They are subjected to threats, harassment and even doxing.  Creating a public health department could certainly create the impression that government officials are chipping away at our right to live our own lives as we see fit. Under the Local Health Administration Law, an unelected health department has very broad powers to "prevent or remove conditions which constitute a menace to public health." That's way too broad and, at least in my view, an unconstitutional overreach.

I do support the idea of a study and would even support a county health department if  (1)  its powers were extremely limited to prevent over-reach; (2)  it serves all county citizens equally, not just those in Bethlehem or Easton; and (3) our local nonprofit hospitals prove in-kind services.


Anonymous said...

No. Your solution to bad government is always more bad government. We don't need to be governed harder by these incompetents. This is a horrible idea. Every. Bit. Of. It.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the people outside of Bethlehem can stand up and talk about how the Bethlehem health department is helping them now. Care seats, lead paint abatement, vaccines...all things done for folks outside of Bethlehem, paid for by Bethlehem.

Anonymous said...

The county health department is a bad idea for all the reasons you cite.

It is a bailout of the city, and more importantly a bailout of the wealthy area hospitals you mention.

To the latter point, local government is already subsidizing the wealthy hospitals through tax exemptions for non-profits (which the hospitals are organized under for tax purposes). In reality, these hospitals and their networks are large businesses that generate huge revenues (and net profits) each year.

I'm not saying take away their tax exemptions, but given how taxpayers are already subsidizing the hospitals I don't think it's unreasonable to expect more from them in terms of providing things like "...rabies warnings to drug addiction to maternal care" and the other "benefits" that health bureau advocates cite.

To adequately serve county residents outside the city, the county would have to buy, build or rent space throughout the county to be where the supposed need is. Even if the need was real, the hospitals and their networks already have satellite locations throughout the county that they could use to provide the services that proponents cite.

Creating a new county health department is creating an outdated, inefficient solution that is not needed in our area. Again, the taxpayers are already subsidizing the hospitals so it should be incumbent on them to provide these services, if they are needed. I can guarantee you that the hospitals can provide these services much more efficiently and at a much lower cost than creating a new county bureaucracy.

What is needed is the will for our political leaders to stand up state this obvious fact. Unfortunately, it is much better for many of them to use this issue to boost their own political ambitions at the taxpayers' expense, and those the bureau will supposedly benefit will also receive a lesser level of care.

Anonymous said...

I have deep reservations about the ability to rein in a new authority. I also think this could be a bailout for Bethlehem and some of their out-of-control spending. I fear the resources will be burned in Bethlehem and not the other areas of the county. There have been plenty of studies done on our drug problems and there are enough outpatient resources for those individuals serious about addressing their addiction. Although given the recent report of The Morning Call on the chaos in Bethlehem high school where outrageous behavior is "managed" by the head of the school and his teachers and support staff it looks as if we will need more jails and treatment centers for the "graduates" as they move on in life having met their high school educational "goals."

Anonymous said...

Oh No, not another government agency, filled with more bureaucrats, cushy pensions and jobs for political cronies.

Anonymous said...

Creating more government bureaucracy is NEVER a good thing. Our state and federal government proves that. We’d all be better off if 25-50% of all government workers were let go. There’s deadwood everywhere.

Anonymous said...

No, you mean paid for with Federal and State dollars that everyone outside of Bethlehem also contributes to.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Maybe the people outside of Bethlehem can stand up and talk about how the Bethlehem health department is helping them now. Care seats, lead paint abatement, vaccines...all things done for folks outside of Bethlehem, paid for by Bethlehem.

January 7, 2022 at 5:58 AM

Anonymous said...

Love seeing all these "No's"...

Its always someone elses problem until its your problem. Fast forward a few years and these same people will be ragging on "The Ineffective Government" for not doing enough to protect them from whatever problem they allowed to fester in someone elses backyard thats now in theirs.

Anonymous said...

11.30 get over it, the government can't protect you from anything except controlling your own life and money.

Anonymous said...

Once again, the poor people of this county have decided to vote against their own interest. They’ve bought into the corporate propaganda that “big government health care” is always BAD for the people, particularly when 2/3 of Northampton county residents can’t even afford decent health coverage. Can y’all be this gullible? When the Airlines got billions of dollars of YOUR tax dollars in bailouts you didn’t blink, but god forbid we invest in our own community. C’mon people, you need to WAKE THE FUCK UP. Start thinking about yourself and your community! None of this greedy corporations or politicians give two shits about you.

So frustrating.

Anonymous said...


Bethlehem's health department is mostly funded through state and federal money. Little taxpayer money goes towards the actual operations. I assume there are some legacy personnel costs, but those won't go away. Even at that, most of the employees are contract employees without pension benefits.

I also think Reynolds would be foolish to abandon the City Health Department. It would doom his first term. The Health Dept is very popular in Bethlehem.

Anonymous said...

The state of Pennsylvania has a health department and we have local departments. Add in one more and you will have a body with no true authority at a cost to the taxpayer. It would make more sense to support the state and local departments so they have the resources to do what they need to. Now they are not as effective because they can only do something much in a day. I congratulate the Allentown and Bethlehem health bureau as they do a good job with small resources. The staff are dedicated. Growing government with more is not the way to go. Support what is in place

scottmccloud said...

I think a county health dept. is an excellent idea, here in Lehigh Co. and in Northampton. Such as dept. can respond to health issues far beyond COVID, such as addiction & any future epidemics. I see no reason why this dept. couldn't be responsive to Bangor (or Slatington in Lehigh) any more than to Bethlehem. And, as a unit of the elected county govt., it wouldn't be anything like the "tyranny" the anti-gov't hacks like to caricature. A useful idea.

Anonymous said...

Are you joking, or daft? Listen to yourself "mostly funded through state and federal money. " It's all taxpayer money!!!

Anonymous said...

Of course, they all hope it is somebody else's money.

Anonymous said...

McClure is a shifty Wanna-Be political bigwig. He knows this is all bullshit. When the Rescue money spent then what? The political and business elite of the valley have wanted this for years, just as they wanted home rule. Easier to control jobs and government.

This was and still is a terrible idea. McClure sold his soul to th political elite and especially his buddies in Bethlehem. The county would create a new patronage laden bureaucracy with an unlimited thirst for money power and taxpayer funded jobs, we have great healthcare system in th county and do not need this boondoggle. Frankly, Council should not even vote to waste money on a study that will again say whatever th executive wants it to say.

Spend the mo0ny on Gracedale or desperately needed county services and no more Executive jobs and money handouts. What a joke on the people. County Council either stand up to this or resign and let him have total control.