Alisa Maria Jones

Alisa Maria Jones of Union Community Care.

A thriving community is a healthy community and strengthening public health is a long-term investment in the economic and social foundation of our county.

As a Spotlight PA article published earlier this month in LNP | LancasterOnline reported, Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget proposes an increase for county and municipal health departments that would give $1.2 million more to their operating budgets and an additional $6.6 million for specific concerns that impact the public’s health.

“Making sure health departments are fully funded prepares us for things we can’t predict and helps just overall create a healthier Pennsylvania,” Antoinette Kraus, executive director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, a consumer advocacy organization, told Spotlight PA, a nonpartisan newsroom.

Since Lancaster County does not have a public health department, we will not benefit from the proposed investment in the public’s well-being. This is unfortunate and reflects a narrow view of the benefits of health and its connection to all aspects of our society.

A public health department in Lancaster County would create the infrastructure and expertise to position us now and, in the future, to meet the expanding threats to our community’s health. These include infectious and communicable diseases, chronic illnesses and environmental concerns that impact health.

It would allow us to truly prepare to respond quickly and efficiently to the next widespread infectious illness.

It would allow Lancaster County to take advantage of existing state and federal grant dollars, such as those available to other Pennsylvania health departments, that we currently miss out on completely.

Based on information provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s Bureau of Community Health Systems, if Lancaster County had a health department, we would have been eligible for an estimated $27 million over the past 10 years from funding allocated in Pennsylvania law. It’s important to note that this is an estimate since the actual allocation by the General Assembly may be lower than the indicated per capita amount.

Most of the grant funding for health departments is from federal sources and indicated for specific health issues and public services. Lancaster County misses opportunities for state and federal grants that require funds be allocated to a municipal public health authority, which we do not have.

The decision to create a local health department is complex and requires long-term financial analysis that accounts for local, state and potential federal funds. The decision should be based on a comprehensive and transparent assessment of need and the weighing of those needs against current and projected resources. However, we know that zero dollars invested in public health will cost us all in the long run.

Counties such as Delaware County, which has a similarly sized population as Lancaster County, have done the assessment and found that an investment in their community’s health is worth making. Delaware County’s public health department began operating in April 2022 and has aimed to engage partners such as educational institutions, businesses, nonprofits and health care organizations to address the health of the community. That department recently announced that it has initiated its first community health assessment to “identify key health assets, needs, and disparities in Delaware County through comprehensive data collection, research, and analysis.” The aim: to develop strategies to improve public health in that county.

By envisioning a health department that works collaboratively across sectors we could achieve more and reduce duplication — which would yield cost savings in the long run. We know that Lancaster County is a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family. We strongly believe our community will be even more resilient and able to thrive if we invest in our most important resource: our people.

Alisa Maria Jones, MPH, is the president and CEO of Union Community Care, a federally qualified health organization that provides equitable and affordable health care for all. This column is co-signed by Susan Eckert, a board member of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Health.

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