Belpre weighs in on possible health department mergers

BELPRE – The Belpre Board of Health is willing to listen to proposals about joining with the Marietta and Washington County health departments, but members are in no hurry to consolidate.

Dick Wittberg, interim commissioner of the Washington County Health Department, attended the Belpre board’s regular meeting Friday. He is serving in the job on a volunteer basis after the county health board decided not to renew Commissioner Kathleen Meckstroth’s contract in an effort to cut costs for the department, which board members said has been operating in the red in recent years and had to get an advance from the county to cover the first payroll of 2013.

“I look at this as a potential opportunity to look at some sort of consolidation,” Wittberg said.

That’s one course of action the Ohio Department of Health has recommended the county department pursue. It’s also the first step toward the model Wittberg works with in his regular job as executive director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, which is based in Parkersburg and covers six West Virginia counties.

“I’ve been able to see some of the power that a regional health department has,” he said. “We can reach more people, and it’s easier to attract partners.”

But Belpre health board members expressed reservations about merging and losing the level of service they currently have.

“We’re happy with what we’re doing,” board member Tom Barrett said. “I don’t think bigger is better like everyone else does.”

A member of the health board since 1976, Barrett said he’s been through consolidation talks before. For a while, the county did handle health department duties for the city.

“We’ve never (gotten) good services from them,” he said.

Now, Belpre contracts a health commissioner and sanitarian from the Athens City-County Health Department and nursing services from the Marietta City Health Department. Members said they’re very pleased with their working arrangement with Marietta, but were concerned over a potential loss of local control by moving to a countywide format.

“Bigger means truly less voice for the smaller people getting help – sometimes,” said Belpre board member Joel Whitaker.

Wittberg said he would not support an arrangement that led to a decrease in services. He suggested the county health board’s recent struggles provide an opportunity for Belpre to influence the shape of a new department.

“I think that Belpre’s in a position to get equal footing with Marietta and the county,” he said.

Dana Singer, program developer at the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department and, like Wittberg, a Marietta resident, said consolidating departments would eliminate duplication of administrative positions and allow those funds to go to front-line employees who would be out in the communities needing service.

“It would give so much more voice to those rural communities,” she said.

Chuck Hammer, Belpre’s current health commissioner and a former Washington County health commissioner, said the troubles facing the county department make a merger less attractive.

“I think that’s what we’re after, is starting a relationship with a healthy entity rather than jumping into a relationship with an entity that’s ailing and lacking funding,” he said.

Based on past experience with the county health department, including the fact that no member of that board had been to a Belpre board meeting in years, Hammer said he felt trust needed to be re-established before a merger could come to pass.

Board members did not shut the door on consolidation talks, but indicated they wanted to proceed slowly and see how things progress between Marietta and the county.

“I like being on the tail end of this one,” Belpre Mayor Mike Lorentz said.

The Marietta City Health Department recently instructed Dr. Michael Brockett, its health commissioner, to reach out to the county board and see how they can be of assistance. However, the board has previously indicated great reluctance to consider a full merger.