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Mecklenburg County Hopes Public 'Sees No Changes' In Public Health Changeover

Michael Tomsic

Starting next week, Mecklenburg County’s public health department will once again be run by the county. Carolinas HealthCare System has staffed and operated that department for about 18 years. It provides a wide variety of services, including flu shots, cancer screenings and health care in CMS schools.

About 200 public health workers filed into the Grady Cole Center earlier this month to get to know their new employer.

"We're in the process of providing human resource orientation for some of that staff that will begin to be county employees on July 1," said Bobby Cobb, deputy director of the county's health department. "And these employees have agreed to come to work for Mecklenburg County doing the same job that they were doing previously for Carolinas HealthCare."

That's one thing that won’t change when the county takes over public health – the staff. Cobb said about 450 of the 500 employees will be holdovers from Carolinas HealthCare System, and they’ll make roughly the same salary they did before.

In fact, Cobb said the county wants to change as little as possible about the health department. 

"For the public, we hope they see no changes," he said. "We hope we'll be able to continue the quality services that we've always had in public health in partnership with Carolinas HealthCare."

The county has no complaints about the cost or quality of the public health services Carolinas HealthCare provided. Assistant County Manager Michelle Lancaster said the change is really a side effect of a contract dispute.

"Getting out of the public health business with Carolinas had nothing to do with public health," she said.

Since the mid 1990s, the county has paid Carolinas HealthCare to provide hospital services for the poor, mental health services at CMC-Randolph, and public health services. But two summers ago, the county decided it was paying too much for poor and mental health services. 

"We had the financial dip," Lancaster remembers. "Why were we giving $17 million to organizations that had pretty strong bottom lines when we were looking at cutting services to the community?"

So the county stopped funding two parts of the three-part contract. Carolinas HealthCare sued. When the two sides settled last year, they agreed to just junk the whole contract.

Lancaster said there were benefits to having a hospital system run the public health department, but she thinks the county can do just as good a job. 

"For all practical purposes, public health is a county-run operation everywhere - in all other 99 counties in North Carolina, so I don't think we see any concern there," she said.

The county will also be liable now if anything goes wrong. But Lancaster said the county isn’t concerned about that, either, because it wasn’t a problem when the county used to run public health before the Carolinas HealthCare contract.

Several health care advocates in Mecklenburg County are also confident the county can do a good job.

"I basically see it as – it's going to be business as usual," Beverly Irby said. She's the CEO of C.W. Williams Community Health Center, which provides primary care and other services to uninsured and low-income people.

She worked for the public health department under Carolinas HealthCare until 2007, and she points out the county will offer the same services at the same prices that the hospital system did.

Don Jonas is the executive director of Care Ring, another nonprofit that’s part of the county’s health care safety net. He’s actually excited about the change.

"To me, it opens up opportunities for new types of collaboration," he said.

Jonas said an example would be partnering with a community organization that aims to get residents better access to quality food.

He expects there will be some bumps during the initial transition. The Beatties Ford Road clinic will be closed next week as the county switches IT and other systems there. Public health services will still be offered at the Billingsley Road clinic during that time.