Advocates Make New Case for Bi-County Health Department
68 percent of Lehigh Valley residents favor bi-county agency, according to Muhlenberg survey.
Anticipating a Sept. 1 Northampton County Council vote that may kill the still-nascent Bi-County Health Department once and for all, advocates came together this afternoon to present new information championing its survival.
Perhaps most politically compelling to the decision makers is that a little more than two-thirds of Lehigh Valley residents are in favor of establishing a new health department to serve both counties.
This is according to the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, which recently conducted its annual Lehigh Valley quality of life survey of residents of Lehigh and Northampton counties.
At a news conference at the offices of the American Red Cross of the Greater Lehigh Valley, Ilene Prokop, chairwoman of the Lehigh Valley Board of Health, read a statement that was heavy with the results of this survey.
She also presented new information on the disparities in services given to Allentown and Bethlehem residents who have government health departments and to those living outside the cities who don't have such departments.
For Allentown and Bethlehem residents, those differences include a greater frequency of immunization clinics for children and adults, testing for West Nile virus, free screening and treatment for tuberculosis, and more frequent health and sanitation inspections of child-care centers and restaurants. Additionally, the Allentown and Bethlehem health departments conduct safety and sanitation inspections of schools, while no such inspections are conducted anywhere else in the two counties.
Prokop also outlined information about morbidities, such as poor health status, low birth weights and obesity rates, which exceed national averages in both counties.
Despite the new arguments and information, Northampton County Executive John Stoffa and County Councilman Mike Dowd -- both advocates of a bi-county department -- said they believe council will vote to repeal the county’s authorization for the department on Sept. 1.
They are hoping that council will instead table the repeal vote to give the economy more time to heal and reduce concerns that the department is not affordable. A repeal would kill any chance of a department for a long time to come, Stoffa and Dowd agreed.
“Until everyone comes together on this issue, which I don’t believe they are, I’d prefer to see it tabled,” Stoffa said.
If Northampton County kills the bi-county department, Lehigh County Commissioner Percy Dougherty, also a department advocate, would not give much hope to the idea that a single-county bureau would be able to go it alone. It is uncertain that the state would approve such an arrangement or that Lehigh County’s political climate would support a countywide department, he said.
Further, he seemed somewhat pessimistic that support for the bi-county department would hold into next year, given the fiscally conservative slate of Republicans who have been nominated for commissioner.
“Unless something is done now, the future is very bleak,” Dougherty said.
The Muhlenberg survey indicated a lack of understanding around the cost of establishing the new department, Prokop said. The most common answer was between $100 and $500 per household in the Lehigh Valley. The actual cost is estimated at less than $10 per household, Prokop said.
“When people understand the issue, they believe it to be a cost-effective way to address an important issue,” Prokop said.
The 68 percent of those surveyed by Muhlenberg who favor a new Bi-County Health Department include 73 percent of women and 62 percent of men. Only 17 percent of those surveyed were opposed to a new department, while 15 percent were undecided.
“While the economic and political climate in the Lehigh Valley, the state and the rest of the country has changed, the need to improve our public health infrastructure in the Lehigh Valley remains strong, if we are to preserve and protect the health of all of our citizens,” Prokop said.
“The question that the health commission should ask is not, ‘Can we afford to have a regional health department?’ but rather, ‘Can we afford not to?’"