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August 27, 2014
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Douglas County postpones public health transfer, enters talks with Umpqua Community Health Center

Reversing an earlier decision some have characterized as rushed and ill-advised, Douglas County commissioners have entered negotiations with the nonprofit Umpqua Community Health Center to provide public health services such as immunizations and prenatal care to county residents. If the talks are successful, the county may abandon its plan to turn those programs over to the state.

Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to retain authority over public health until June 30, 2015.

Two months ago, they voted to give up that authority at the end of September. Public health employees subsequently voiced concern both about their own jobs and about how the department’s services would be provided.

Three weeks ago, a state health official said Douglas was the first county to attempt to transfer its public health authority to the state. Faced with an unprecedented decision, the state was unsure whether it should make plans to run the county’s public health programs itself or contract with a nonprofit agency.

Commissioner Susan Morgan said a week later the state asked for more time to make the transition.

“There have been ongoing meetings between the state and local leaders and all of us became increasingly concerned that we were running out of time and we did not have a plan and the time line was not sufficient to identify, plan and transition the public health programs to the state,” Morgan said.

Oregon Health Authority spokeswoman Susan Wickstrom told The News-Review Wednesday state health officials are glad the county decided to take a step back.

“We’re really pleased that Douglas County has more time to think this through and really come up with a great plan that has the best possible consequences instead of rushing through it blindly, which is kind of what it felt like,” Wickstrom said.

She said the Oregon Health Authority will likely wait and see what the county comes up with rather than working on a separate proposal. However, she said the state is “here to help support in any way we can.”

Roseburg resident Jenny Carloni told commissioners at Wednesday’s meeting she had heard from members of the public that they felt they had not been kept informed and had not been allowed to participate in the county’s decision.

“We would request that if changes to public health do proceed in the future, that there be more explanation to the public about how that transformation will happen, and perhaps some involvement of the public and the employees in the process,” Carloni said.

Later in the meeting, Morgan apologized.

“This was a very inelegant interlude that we just went through and I think it left all of us with a very bad taste. So I will commit to you, now that we have this much more productive path in place, that we will be doing this in a much more transparent fashion,” she said.

Douglas County on July 1 transferred its control over mental health programs to the state, which has contracted with the nonprofit Community Health Alliance to provide them. Mental health employees, who made up 60 percent of the health department’s employees, were given pink slips. CHA Director Janet Holland said most were rehired by the nonprofit organization. Holland said after some initial difficulties transferring a new electronic records system, the organization has made a fairly smooth transition.

Until then, the health department was the county’s largest, with 195 employees.

Umpqua Community Health Center CEO Linda Mullins said that her organization has a good working relationship with the county. She said staff members know the impact public health programs have on their patients and were concerned when they heard the county would be giving up those programs.

Mullins said she believes the organizations working together can improve county residents’ health.

“We are pleased that UCHC has the opportunity to work with the county and the state to assume the delivery of many of the programs,” she said.

County Public Health Director Dawnelle Marshall said the slower transition will help “settle in people’s minds that there is a place to go, there is a continuation. (They are) not being abandoned as some of our clients had felt.”

Morgan said after the meeting she does not yet know how many of the county’s public health staff members will continue in their jobs or for how long.

Umpqua Community Health Center Development Director Brenda Lewis said after the meeting that the organization would look at each public health program individually. The health center wants to consider whether each program can be sustained financially and whether it fits into the center’s mission to provide health care to low-income and underserved populations. She said immunizations and prenatal care could fit into that mission. Other public health functions, like managing communicable disease outbreaks or maintaining birth and death records, would not be a good fit, she said.

Lewis said public meetings would be held as negotiations continue but none have yet been scheduled.

• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or ccegavske@nrtoday.com.

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An earlier version of this story from Aug. 27 appears below:

Douglas County commissioners have entered negotiations with the nonprofit Umpqua Community Health Center to provide public health services to county residents. If the talks are successful, the county will retain its authority over public health programs rather than transferring control to the state, commissioners decided today.

Commissioners voted unanimously to retain authority over public health until June 30, 2015. Two months ago they had voted to give up that authority at the end of September.

Commissioner Susan Morgan said the state public health division asked for more time to make the transition.

“There have been ongoing meetings between the state and local leaders and all of us became increasingly concerned that we were running out of time and we did not have a plan and the timeline was not sufficient to identify, plan and transition the public health programs to the state,” Morgan said.

Roseburg resident Jenny Carloni said she had heard from members of the public that they felt they had not been kept informed and had not been allowed to participate in the county’s decision.

“We would request that if changes to public health do proceed in the future that there be more explanation to the public about how that transformation will happen and perhaps some involvement of the public and the employees in the process,” Carloni said.

Morgan apologized for the way the decision was handled.

“This was a very inelegant interlude that we just went through and I think it left all of us with a very bad taste. So I will commit to you now that we have this much more productive path in place that we will be doing this in a much more transparent fashion,” she said.

Douglas would have been the first county to hand over its public health duties to the state. The county on July 1 transferred its control over mental health programs to the state, which has contracted with the nonprofit Community Health Alliance to provide them. Many former county mental health workers were rehired by the nonprofit organization.

Morgan said after the meeting she does not yet know how many of the county’s public health staff members will continue in their jobs or for how long.


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The News-Review Updated Aug 28, 2014 12:33PM Published Aug 28, 2014 12:07PM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.