Unhealthy start to counties’ discussion

With the passage of Senate Bill 194, a clock is ticking on changes that may soon come to the San Juan Basin Health Department.

Unfortunately, details of those changes and their potential impact remain murky at best, as one of the health district’s key players — La Plata County staff and its board of county commissioners — chose not to discuss the future of the department in an open session with Archuleta County commissioners Feb. 27, calling instead for discussion of the topic in an executive session.

The Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners declined.

“Archuleta County is trying to rebuild credibility, and as few executive sessions as possible keeps things cleaner,” said Archuleta County Commissioner Bob Moomaw.

La Plata County Attorney Sheryl Rogers countered that the executive session was necessary in order for the boards to receive legal advice and to negotiate strategies on the implementation of Senate Bill 194.

Governor Bill Ritter signed the Colorado Public Health Re-organization Act (also called SB-194) June, 4, 2008.

The legislation requires boards, agencies and public officials to cooperatively develop state and local public health plans that set priorities for the public health system in Colorado. According to the governor’s office, the intent is to assure that core public health services are available to all Colorado residents with a consistent standard of quality.

That said, the law requires that county governments establish a local public health agency or participate in a district public health agency by July 1, 2009. The designated public health agency is then required to prepare a public health plan consistent with the statewide improvement plan as soon as practicable after the statewide public health improvement plan is unveiled Dec. 31, 2009.

Currently, Archuleta County and La Plata County jointly fund, along with government grants, a district health agency — the San Juan Basin Health Department.

The act imposes a number of obligations on both counties, and will require an exhaustive examination of the San Juan Basin Health Department, including seeking answers to questions such as whether the district may, or may not be, adequately addressing the public health care needs of Archuleta and La Plata counties.

According to the legislation, counties across the state have until July 1, 2009 to decide whether to form their own county public health agency, or to join an adjacent county and participate in a public health district. Until then however, or until an agency is formed, San Juan Basin Health Department continues with the same authority and duties as before.

In light of the changes facing the department and the counties, Rogers encouraged Archuleta County commissioners to consider a variety of factors, such as the advantages of pooling resources, whether each county is paying their fair share, whether dollars are being spent effectively, and whether each county’s needs are congruent such that a district option would effectively address the area’s public health needs according to the legislation.

“Do we want to go this alone? Are the needs in our communities aligned such that we should go forward with the district?” said Rogers.

“This whole conversation is about how we can deliver better public health services in our county.”

But the conversation may also may be about how to handle San Juan Basin Health Department staffing, assets, debts and liabilities with some degree of restructuring appearing imminent.

Although Archuleta County commissioners opted out of an executive session Feb. 27, they will likely enter into one today at 11 a.m. in Durango.

The topic of discussion: “Determining negotiating strategies and positions and instructing negotiators,” although it remains unclear who the negotiators are and with whom the counties will be negotiating with.

james@pagosasun.com