Programs will run until September.
A move by the Northeast Tri-County Board of Health (NETCHD) to discontinue family planning and Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) testing and treatment services at the end of the year is largely tied to declining numbers of 20-34 year-old residents who generally use the services, according to officials.
The NETCHD Board of Health, chaired by Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart, received a recommendation at the May 18 to discontinue the services for a number of reasons including affordability and declining use.
A letter from former NETCHD Administrator David Windom and Dr. Sam Artzis noted that the program has been “plagued” with provider shortages, could not keep up with expenses and that client numbers continue to drop. The letter noted that in 2012, 791 clients used the family planning and STD services but that demand dropped to 419 in 2015.
Much of the program was funded through a federal Title X grant, which is expiring. Staffing is also unsustainable, according to the report, which noted the provider in Republic is retiring, the current model of using resident physicians to plug the staffing gaps in Colville is not sustainable and there is “no pipeline of new providers coming to the area in the foreseeable future.”
The letter also said more people are able to use Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act to seek family planning services through their doctor and NEW Health Programs in Colville can also provide family planning and STD services. Taking the recommendation of Windom and Artiz, the Board of Health, which is comprised of county commissioners from Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille County along with several city mayors, voted to discontinue the services.
However, local physician Dr. Leslie Waters questioned the information regarding a decline in demand in an email to news outlets last week.
“Family planning and STD services were cut back to half a day per week and have been moved several times in the past two years. The Board of Health claims that the number of people served is low, yet when services are only offered a half a day per week, and the location of the services changes, the numbers cannot be expected to be comparable to earlier times when the clinics were offered daily and there was a provider onsite,” Dr. Waters wrote. “ Now access to STD screening and treatment and birth control will be curtailed altogether. There is an assumption that these services will be provided by the patient’s doctor. However, many people in our community remain uninsured or their insurance doesn’t cover medications. Therefore, what was once a safety net for the most vulnerable will effectively be eliminated.”
But Commissioner and Board of Health Chair Wes McCart said the vote was not a vote against public health or public health services.
“One of our jobs as commissioners is to make sure we don’t duplicate services and waste taxpayer money,” said McCart. “But this is not just a money issue. We don’t want people to fall through the cracks. We believe the services that are available are sufficient to meet the need if we discontinue this part of what Tri-County Health offers.”
Also, despite rumors that McCart and other Stevens County commissioners wanted to “dismantle” Tri-County health entirely, McCart said discussions about separating the district into smaller county districts was discussed at the meeting.
“We just had our administrator of the district, Dave Windom, resign and we are looking at having to make some changes to the district, so this seemed like the right time to bring up other questions about the overall organization,” said McCart. “When two counties can exert their will over a third, as can happen with the health district, we have to ask if that is the best form of representative government. There are also questions about cost. For instance, Okanogan County only spends $150,000 on their health services and their fees to clients are half of what ours are.
Stevens County spends $500,000 and the fees to clients are double what it costs in Okanogan County. So while we are looking for a new administrator, it seemed like this would be the best time to talk about changes that might be beneficial going forward.”
McCart said any change in the health district structure is in the discussion phase and no specific action is planned.
NETCHD family planning providers will discontinue seeing clients as of Sept. 1 so clients can be transferred to new providers in the community. Other services including maternal health support, the Women Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition services and travel immunizations will continue to be offered through the district. For more information, visit www.netchd.org.
By Jamie Henneman/The Independent Staff