St. Joseph County Commissioners deny funding for community health workers
The St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners voted to deny federal funding Tuesday that allows the county health department to hire more community health workers. That’s after the Elkhart County Council denied an application for the same grant last month.
The St. Joseph County Department of Health won funding from the Centers for Disease Control’s “Community Health Workers for COVID Response and Resilient Communities” grant after the commissioners unanimously approved the grant application back in May.
The health department already has three community health workers on staff, but the $3 million, 3-year grant allows it to hire eight more. That team would provide a number of services – including lead testing, blood pressure screenings, COVID-19 testing and help with health insurance – to census tracts deemed “vulnerable” by CDC data.
“That does not mean that we are not going to provide services to the other parts of the county,” Cassy White, the health department’s director of health equity, epidemiology and data, said. “But the new team of community health workers would take a priority working with the populations in these identified census tracts.”
But the commissioners raised concerns over language in the grant – specifically, a passage that says the health department will “comply with existing and/or future directives and guidance from the Secretary [of Health and Human Services] regarding control of the spread of COVID-19… and assist the United States Government in the implementation and enforcement of federal orders related to quarantine and isolation.”
“My concern is that when you do this now, you’re going to have to do whatever the federal government is dictating,” Commissioner Deb Fleming said. “And I’m saying no, we need freedom.”
County Health Officer Dr. Bob Einterz said the health department is already helping the CDC and state with quarantine protocols, contact tracing and testing. And under Indiana law, local health departments can’t make stricter emergency rules than the state unless a county or city body approves it.
“They are recommendations, they are not dictums to us,” Einterz said. “And you and I are free to share those recommendations – to take those recommendations or not.”
The commissioners ultimately vetoed the funding in a 2-1 vote, with Commissioner Andy Kostielney voting against the veto. Kostielney said he also had concerns about the grant’s language, but that the federal government can’t force the commissioners to do anything.
“We ask our county departments to find grant funding to do things to help offset costs to the county to provide better services to county residents,” he said. “The health department did what we asked them to do.”
“The worst that would happen is that we might have to refund some of the money that they give us,” he added.
The bill will now return to the St. Joseph County Council, which will decide whether to override the commissioners’ veto. The council initially approved the grant funding at its Oct. 12 meeting.
At the county board of health meeting on Oct. 20, Einterz said he "fully expects" the council to override the veto. He also called the veto "political theatre" and said it was "unbecoming" of county leadership.
“This is a kick in the teeth to the members of my department," Einterz said. "And I find it highly offensive on the part of the commissioners that voted for this that they did this to the morale of my team.”
Several board members said Wednesday they were surprised and upset by the commissioners’ vote. Board member Emily Dean added that it betrayed a “lack of awareness” about the health needs of county residents.
“It challenges people to envision that there are people living lives among us that are not like our own and that are much, much more difficult," Dean said. "If we can make them less difficult, why not do it?”
The county council will hold its next meeting Tuesday, Oct. 26.
This story has been updated.
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