Tahlequah Daily Press

March 15, 2013

Health department needs to get back on track

A catastrophic sewage break in 2011 has prevented CCHC from serving the community the way it should. Officials want voters to help.

By ROB W. ANDERSON
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — The Cherokee County Health Department is asking area residents to help it get back on track with a 2.5-mill levy, up for a vote next month.

A county health department’s mission is to provide widespread change in the health of every resident, through services accessible either a the building site or delivered to homes by an employee-provider. CCHD lost some its ability to accomplish this goal in October 2011, when a sewer backup occurred in the west building.

The building was flooded with sewage, which rendered it uninhabitable for occupation and operations. Refurbishing the building, which had been used for 30 years, was cost-prohibitive. Services were either lost or altered, and medical providers, clinical staff, community educators/inspectors and clients now have to share one building.

To return the community clinic to a fully functioning facility, the CCHD needs to collect the 2.5 mills authorized by state statute, said Oklahoma State Department of Health Administrative Director Maria Alexander, who oversees operations in Mayes, Cherokee, Ottawa, Craig and Delaware counties. The CCHD currently collects 1.5 mills.

“The health department has never broached an increase, that I’m aware of,” she said. “We are one of a handful of counties that do not collect the full 2.5 mills that are authorized by the Title 63 statute.”

The millage vote will be Tuesday, April 2. If voters pass the measure, property owners will pay about $11 more per $100,000 of assessed property value, county officials have said.

Previous clinic operation took place in two buildings with a combined space of 14,000 square feet, and the millage should construct a building with 15,000 to 20,000 square feet. Aside from the need to move providers or staff to another county health department due to the sewage damage, CCHD has had to turn away services that might normally be housed at the Tahlequah complex, said Alexander.

“We’re simply unable to host them here,” she said. “Let me give an example. One of our efforts coming up is infant mortality. We want to really focus on decreasing the number of infant mortality cases within this community. However, we can’t house the person who would have been assigned that duty here. That takes services away. If they have to be housed in another county and have to travel here, that’s time that could have been better spent in actually working with the physicians on that issue.”

Requests for space have also been made by sanitarians, or individuals who provide restaurant food inspection and food handler certifications. An individual who works with mass immunization and prophylaxis as part of an emergency preparedness and response program has also made inquiries.

“They’ve requested to be housed here, and that would have given us that additional opportunity,” said Alexander. “Health departments are often used in the field for state programs to bring that  [service] to the community. Even though that person might handle several other counties, the host county really reaps the benefit of their being there locally. And we’ve lost that.”

Alexander added the CCHD would also like to provide space for education and conferences in a large-group setting. What was once the break room in the east building is now being used a conference room, accessed through a hallway housing locked file cabinets and a soda-dispensing machine.

Current working conditions are akin to military personnel manning a submarine, said CCHD Turning Point Field Consultant Sarah Johnson.

“We don’t have enough office space for all of our staff. We’ve got three work stations in a file room, and then we also have a work station in a storage closet,” she said. “We’re having to make room wherever we can find room to actually set up a computer and house a desk.”

Marsha Gross, Early Intervention/Sooner Start administrative assistant, said providers have had to adjust from using a spacious observation room to treat a child with developmental disabilities, to conducting the process in other areas not designed for therapeutic purposes. The flood damage has displaced everything, she said.

“It’s kind of put my stuff everywhere, but I’m thankful to have a place to be. I have my desk in the file room,” she said. “It’s a little difficult with the clients because we don’t have a place to do eval[uations]. We used to do them in [the west building observation room] and now we’re doing them in an office. So that’s a little difficult for our providers, but we’re doing it.”