Lancaster County commissioners voted 2-1 Wednesday to create a health advisory council tasked with providing data analysis and recommendations to detect, prevent and respond to illnesses that pose a public health threat to residents.
The move stops short of creating a local health department — something county leaders, organizations and health officials have for decades pushed for — and instead creates an advisory council that cannot make public health statements on behalf of the county. Additionally, the council can only recommend strategies at the commissioners’ request.
It is for these reasons that Commissioner Craig Lehman said he could not support the health council, which commissioners Tuesday said could be implemented by January.
The measure passed along party lines, with Republican commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino approving it and Democrat Lehman voting against it.
“The resolution that’s before us today specifically states that the advisory committee can’t comment independently on any issue, period,” Lehman said. “So, I leave you folks with something to consider. Ask yourself the question if you only want elected officials to be telling you what’s happening in an emergency.”
An amendment by Lehman to begin a data-driven discussion on establishing a local health department died during the commissioners’ Tuesday work session for lack of a second motion.
The advisory council will include nine to 13 members appointed by commissioners. Lancaster County residents or those employed here are encouraged to apply for consideration.
Applications are available here and can be emailed along with a resume or brief bio to email@example.com, or mailed to Lynn Commero at the Lancaster Commissioners Office, 150 N. Queen St., Suite 715, Lancaster, PA 17603.
D’Agostino, who proposed the health advisory council, provided few details on how members — particularly those with expertise to provide recommendations on health issues — will be appointed. Instead, he referred to the resolution, which states, in part, that members “may include knowledgeable community health representatives.”
Typically, governing bodies that want to have specific professionals appointed to an advisory board or committee will require it by charter, often specifying a desired number to ensure this representation. The health advisory council’s charter includes no such language.
The proposal for the advisory council was introduced during Tuesday’s work session. D’Agostino cited the success of a COVID-19 advisory group disbanded earlier this year as the inspiration for the council.
The proposal, D’Agostino said, has been 18 months in the making and was specifically a workaround to the 1951 Local Public Health Administration Law, which authorizes the creation of local health departments in Pennsylvania.
“Under the (1951) law, once a Board of Health is established there’s no local oversight as the Board of Health, which would have complete autonomy, almost,” D’Agostino said, re-reading from notes he had prepared for Tuesday’s work session.
D’Agostino said officials at all four health systems in Lancaster County — Penn Medicine Lancaster General, Penn State Health, UPMC and WellSpan Health — support and would participate in the council.
Spokespeople with WellSpan and Penn State Health confirmed this, but declined to comment on whether the lack of independence would raise any concerns.
“We are open to considering all efforts that seek to measurably improve the health and well-being of our community and look forward to learning more about the Council’s work,” LG Health spokesperson John Lines said in an email to LNP | LancasterOnline.
Officials with UPMC did not immediately respond to an LNP | LancasterOnline email seeking comment.
The proposal for a health advisory council comes as state and federal health officials have struggled to effectively respond to COVID-19, which has killed more Americans than the 1918 Spanish flu, the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history.
It also follows Manheim Township and Lancaster City Council approving resolutions supporting a local health department and calling on Lancaster County commissioners to create one.
County lawmakers from various townships have praised the health advisory council as a smart Lancaster County solution.
Of Pennsylvania’s seven most populous counties — excluding Lancaster — Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Montgomery and Philadelphia all have local health departments, while Delaware is in the process of launching one.