Douglas County leaders have plenty of concerns about health department plan to pass off family-planning services
photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World
Douglas County leaders had plenty of questions and concerns Wednesday about the health department’s plan to have another local health care provider take over family-planning services.
Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Director Dan Partridge spoke at the Douglas County Commission’s meeting on Wednesday about that plan, in which family-planning services — also called Title X services — would be handed over to Heartland Community Health Center. Heartland CEO Julie Branstrom, in a letter to the commission this week, confirmed that the clinic plans at its next board meeting to consider applying for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s Title X grant, which funds services like access to contraceptives, breast and cervical cancer screenings and testing for sexually transmitted infections.
Partridge, on Wednesday and at previous health department board meetings, has framed the move as an attempt to help direct patients to all-encompassing services under one roof, where they can be treated by a physician for any number of other health care concerns.
But all three commissioners, as well as Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky, had no shortage of concerns about the plan, and they urged Partridge to pump the brakes on the transition process.
“How will you work to ensure equitable access if you’re not really doing anything to provide it?” Plinsky asked.
Talks between the health department and Heartland have been ongoing since late last year. They’ve also been deeply unpopular with former health department clinic nurses and led to a number of them quitting. A number of former employees told the Journal-World they felt so strongly about the decision that it was the specific reason they resigned.
Commissioner Patrick Kelly asked Partridge about those resignations, specifically why the health department’s presentation seemed to attribute its current clinic capacity to hiring troubles. Partridge said that the health department has had a persistent staffing issue since last June, but he did acknowledge that the Title X conversations directly contributed to at least two nurses’ resignations.
Commissioners also had worries about the demographics of who’s served at the clinic. Partridge said the health department provided nearly 3,500 Title X services — categorized as women’s health exams, STI tests, pregnancy tests and contraception — to 1,142 unique patients in 2022. Of that group, 57% were at or below the federal poverty level, and 59% were uninsured.
That includes a population of undocumented folks who know the health department is a place they can go to receive such services for free, Commissioner Shannon Reid said. Reid said she was concerned about a clinic like Heartland being overburdened, given that it already functions as a health care hub for low-income folks’ other services, and moving away from a clinic where one can often be seen without an appointment could cause some people to lose access they currently have.
“… That ability to get same-day services — or at least get same-day responses about requests for appointments — and have a quick turnaround for those testing appointments and treatments is really critical,” Reid said. “While 1,200 people a year may not seem that significant, I think that’s a really critical and relied-upon place and service for them.”
Kelly and one resident who spoke during public comment also wondered about the timing of the move, because Partridge announced in November that he plans to retire in June of 2023. Partridge said the reason it didn’t happen sooner was because the department’s strategic planning process had been moving more slowly recently. He said he had been trying to slow down the strategic planning process in order to avoid leaving too much of his “stamp” on it for the next director.
Partridge previously told the Journal-World — and reiterated again Wednesday to commissioners — that his goal is for there to never be a void in Title X services, and that the health department would continue to provide them if Heartland ultimately doesn’t receive the grant. But Kelly said he wants to hear that commitment from the health department’s board, too.
In other business, the commission:
* Elected Kelly as chair of the board for 2023 and Commissioner Karen Willey as vice chair.
* Issued proclamations declaring January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month and Jan. 15-21 as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Week in Douglas County.