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Waupaca County may split public health, human services

Waupaca County Courthouse

Departments would operate with separate boards

By Robert Cloud

Waupaca County is examining options on restructuring its Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Ted Phernetton, director of DHHS, explained the original decision to combine the two departments at a county board Executive Committee meeting on May 26.

Waupaca and Shawano counties had unified health services until 1986, when “the decision was made to split from Shawano County and bring those services here to Waupaca under one umbrella,” Phernetton said.

Human services and health services, along with the commission on aging, became a single county department.

At that time, Waupaca County offered more individualized, personal-type health services to people in their homes. Human services also included home visits to the frail elderly and disabled as part of long-term care.

“The state of Wisconsin, beginning back in 2006-2007, started working on removing the adult long-term care services from the counties and creating these managed care organizations, private entities, typically not-for-profit, known as family care,” Phernetton said.

Phernetton also noted that Public Health previously provided personal care services and home support for home-bound residents.

“They don’t do that anymore,” he said. “Public Health has moved from services that provide direct, one-on-one service to individuals to a more global, community-based public health, I would say almost regulatory, processes that they weren’t engaged in the past.”

By separating the two departments, public health would focus more on broader issues, while human service would remain focused on individuals.

Role of Public Health

“Our role is more focused on population health, community health, not so much individual health,” according to Waupaca County Public Health Officer Jed Wohlt.

While the county continues to offers childhood immunizations and vaccinations during the covid pandemic, its focus has become “a more global picture of population health,” Wohlt said. “There isn’t a whole lot of individual contact anymore.”

Wohlt said public health’s focus is now to collect community health data, promote healthy behavior and be “a community health strategist.”

“For us to do that, we really have to have a platform that is recognizable to the community, to the residents, recognizable to our community partners,” Wohlt said.

As part of its data collection, the county has learned that the two most significant local health issues right now are mental health and substance abuse.

“So our job then is not only communicate that to the community but work with out community partners so they have an understanding of it and they can prioritize some of their work,” Wohlt said.

Supervisor Kevin Will, a retired DHHS employee, said he initially opposed the idea of breaking apart the department.

However, he thinks a designated public health department could do a better job of promoting health issues in the community.

“If we could avoid one death, two deaths a year, if we could avoid a possible hospitalization because of the health department,” Will said.

“If we just save a couple of lives a year, that’s worth it,” Supervisor DuWayne Federwitz said.

Supervisor Peter Bosquez said he was reluctant to add another county board committee and its associated costs.

“It’s not a hard no for me,” he said.

Proposed resolution

The resolution states that Public Health “has its main focus on population-health based services that include the following: surveillance and investigation to identify community health problems, disease control, disease prevention, identification and mitigation, policy and planning, leadership and organizational competencies, and collaborative community engagement to act as a community leader and chief health strategist.”

The Executive Committee voted unanimously to recommend that the Waupaca County Board approve the separation of Public Health and Human Services.

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