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Recently retired County Nurse stresses importance of office, asks health questions

by The Western News
| December 27, 2011 10:12 AM

Letter to the Editor,

I want to thank all the people who wished me well on my recent retirement. I enjoyed being the county nurse for the last 30 years, and now I am enjoying being a lady of leisure!

I would also like to thank the dental professionals who have donated their time to screen hundreds of children every year in area schools for over 30 years.

While the Eureka Health Department office will remain open two days a week, the county commissioners have decided to close the Libby Health Department office as of Dec. 30.

The commissioners have cited lack of funding as the reason. Health Department services are “non essential.”

Having been the Director of Nurses for the Lincoln County Health Department, including both Libby and Eureka offices, for the past 30 years, I am compelled to share information and my perceptions with the residents of Lincoln County.

First, some background on services. Since Jan. 1, the Libby office has given over 1,500 vaccinations, investigated and followed up on over 100 cases of contagious diseases and provided vision and dental screening for over 300 children in area rural schools.

The Eureka office provides approximately one-third the number of vaccinations and provides vision screening for over 500 children in the north end of the county.

Both offices make home visits to newborns, as well as to elderly and/or chronically disabled who are not eligible for other programs.

Both offices provide medical information and referral to other local, state and federal resources.

Over 95 percent of the contagious disease follow-up has occurred through the Libby office since the vast majority of these diseases have occurred in the southern end of the county where most of the population lives.

Now the commissioners tell us that the Department of Emergency Management, along with the part-time nurse in Eureka area, will provide this.

How this will occur is a mystery to me. The Department of Emergency Management has no medical personnel.

The Contagious Disease Coordinator works 30 hours per week out of the Libby office to do this. It is unrealistic to expect the nurse working in Eureka two days a week to add this onto her already full schedule.

Reporting and investigation of contagious diseases in a strictly confidential and timely manner is required by Montana law.

The Health Department staff from both the Libby and Eureka offices have voiced concerns and attempted to educate the commissioners about public health, but to no avail.

We have offered to help figure out solutions. Numerous phone calls, letters and petitions protesting closing the Libby office have been received by the commissioners. The medical community has also sent emails, made phone calls and written letters sent by registered mail requesting a meeting to find solutions.

On Nov. 28, a public meeting regarding the County Nurse’s office was posted on the commissioners’ schedule for Nov. 30.

On Nov. 29, it was removed from the schedule and to date, it has not been rescheduled. Neither input from the public nor medical providers has been adequately addressed.

I would also like to comment on the “non essential” services of the Health Department.

Public Health’s job is not only to provide direct services such as immunizations, but to evaluate and protect the health of the county as a whole.

Not only does it try and control outbreaks of disease as quickly as possible, but it also responds to slow-motion disasters such as that which has occurred by our asbestos exposure and related health problems.

In 2003, the Libby office applied for and received a federal grant to set up the ARDNET, or Asbestos Related Disease Network, to assist residents to be screened and obtain needed medical/social services.

Libby is the first and only place in U.S. history to be considered a public health emergency and the commissioners vote to close the Health Department!

One more thing.

Take a look at your 2011 property tax notice. There is no levy for the County Nurse’s office which has always been there for the previous 29 years that I have lived here.

There is a “permissive levy” on the tax notice which is to help fund health insurance for elected officials and county employees.

What about the rest of the citizens in Lincoln County who have no health insurance? And, now no Health Department, except for some limited services in Eureka?

Lincoln County receives grant money from the state to help provide public health services. Good planning is needed to make the most of these funds.

Help has been offered.

Elected officials should seek and consider public opinion and input from the medical community to work out some solutions.

It is ESSENTIAL!

—Karol Spas

Retired County Nurse