Washington-Ozaukee Public Health Department lauded for cost savings, service by UW-Madison
Merging the Ozaukee and Washington counties’ public health departments has earned statewide recognition.
Department Director Kirsten Johnson and Washington County Administrator Joshua Schoemann have been chosen to receive the 2016 Lloyd D. Gladfelter Award from the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The award totals $2,500.
The two departments merged July 1, the culmination of a year’s worth of planning, Johnson said. Both counties’ strategic plans call for finding ways to share services, and they saw an opportunity to merge public health departments, she said.
Financially, the merger saved Ozaukee County $70,000 to $80,000 due to splitting the salary and benefits package of one director instead of each county paying for its own, said Ozaukee County Administrator Tom Meaux.
Attrition, Johnson said, allowed for reorganization. Duties of those leaving were not just dropped on other people’s plates, she said.
“I feel strongly that you should have the right people in the right jobs because then they do the best jobs,” she said.
Johnson was named Director of Ozaukee County’s public health department in 2011, bringing a focus on best practices and alignment to national objectives. Washington County’s director of public health retired, allowing Johnson to head the combined department.
Johnson heads 34 people in the newly joined department, which she said can provide better services than when the two were separate.
“Really, the concept is to build the public health infrastructure so we can provide the services the community expects from us, and do it well,” Johnson said.
One advantage is the merging of the two counties’ information systems.
“What’s nice is because we’re one department we can see lab reports. If someone is working on the case (in one county), they’re able to share information (with the other county),” Johnson said.
Due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), Johnson said counties with separate health departments may not see each other’s lab reports.
The department has already used that system to better track norovirus and other diseases, Johnson said.
In addition, the combined department picked up a third public health educator. Johnson started the position in Ozaukee in 2011, and Washington County hired its own in 2015.
Last spring the two departments hired a third person they shared until the merger. That wouldn’t have happened if the departments would have remained separate, Johnson said.
“It’s built our capacity,” Johnson said.
The health educators focus on how to best prevent diseases and pool resources.
“It’s really looking at policies in communities and how they shape the environment we live in and how they’re conducive to healthy behaviors,” Johnson said.
She said examples would be communities offering walking and bike paths and better access to fruits and vegetables. The department is working with school districts and places like the Wellspring organic farm in Newburg to promote a Harvest of the Month, a program that highlights a locally available crop in school cafeterias, restaurants, workplaces and grocery stores.
“The difference is the health educators are trained to do this work,” Johnson said.
Another example is communities becoming “mental health friendly,” she said. “What are the pieces that need to be in place, services available and in schools, and that there’s a culture of empathy.”
The merger wasn’t without the typical fears of job losses, and Johnson said she is learning how to run a larger department.
“But the exciting thing about it is to be the first merged county health department in Wisconsin. It’s exciting to build something and think strategically about how we want to provide services,” she said.
“This is the best kind of consolidation,” Meaux said. “We’re offering better service and have lower costs. It’s a tribute to leadership in both counties.”
In addition, the department is one of four across the country this year that received a $75,000 grant to measure the impact of sharing services from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to health care.
One way to measure shared services is to track the time it takes for someone to get an immunization from the time they walk into the department or make the first phone call, Johnson said.
Another is to measure the time it takes to investigate a communicable disease outbreak as a joint department instead of a single department, she said.