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Lehigh Valley (Penn.) Needs Regional Health Department

In the coming months, Lehigh and Northampton Counties are expected to take up the question of whether to establish a Lehigh Valley regional health department. Renew Lehigh Valley (RenewLV) endorses the creation of such a department, not only because we value regional cooperation, but also because it would mean real improvements in health services to all Lehigh Valley communities.

In the Lehigh Valley, we have serious disparities and fragmentation in our public-health system. The region's two state-certified health departments -- in Allentown and Bethlehem -- offer a wide range of high-quality health services delivered by skilled, dedicated staffs. However, residents living elsewhere receive only limited public-health services provided by a mix of state agencies.

But the problem goes beyond a lack of consistency in services. If the Lehigh Valley develops a regional health department, it will be eligible to access additional state public-health funds, to provide additional services. This could happen without the region spending beyond what it already does on public health.

How would this work? Eligible local health departments receive public-health funds from the state based on the size of the population they serve. Presently, the Lehigh Valley receives about $1.3 million in public-health funds each year, an allocation based on Allentown and Bethlehem's combined population of 180,000. With a health department serving the region's entire population of 600,000, the Valley would be eligible for more than three times as much funding, or about $4.5 million. In other words, by not working together we are now leaving more than $3 million in state health funds on the table each year.

Through cooperation, we will be able to access outside funds. This will then fund service enhancements that will touch the lives of all Lehigh Valley residents. Examples include:

Increased services for preventing and managing chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer,

Expanded screening and services to control communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases,

Expanded maternal and child health services, leading to healthier babies and fewer low-weight births,

More frequent restaurant inspections in areas not currently served by local health departments, meaning lower risk of food-borne illness and food poisoning.

Another major benefit of a regional health department would be better coordination of health planning and services. Regional health issues -- such as poor air quality and risks of infectious disease -- do not stop at city or county boundaries. Lehigh Valley residents move among different parts of the region in the course of their daily lives, so it makes sense that public-health services should be consistent and coordinated. A Lehigh Valley Health Department would make this possible.

A regional health department is also necessary to promote coordination in planning for, and responding to, large scale emergencies. Should a natural disaster, epidemic or other public-health crisis hit the Lehigh Valley, a region-wide response would be imperative to minimize illness and loss of life. A regional health department will help improve Valley-wide emergency preparedness and coordinate the efforts of public-health workers, hospitals and other first responders.

A Lehigh Valley Health Department has been talked about for more than 20 years. It's time to move forward. A bi-county study recently concluded and the results were given to the legislative bodies in Lehigh and Northampton counties. Supporters of a regional health initiative are encouraging both counties to pass ordinances before the end of this year to begin creating a Lehigh Valley Health Department.

If you would like to hear what a regional health department would mean for health and well-being in the Lehigh Valley, please join us at RenewLV's open community forum Oct. 2 at the Banana Factory's Binney & Smith Gallery, Bethlehem. Doors will open at 6:15 for refreshments and the program will start at 7 p.m.

Grace Gorenflo, a national authority on developing local public-health systems, will deliver the keynote address, followed by an expert panel discussion featuring Bonnie Coyle, MD, director of Community Health at St. Luke's Hospital, Frank Sparandero, president and CEO, Sacred Heart Hospital, and Margaret Potter, JD, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Public Health Practice.

This forum is free and open to all.

L. Anderson Daub is partner in the Brown-Daub Automobile Dealerships. Joyce Marin is completing her second term on Emmaus Borough Council. They are the Co-Chairs of RenewLV.

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