Should Independence revive its Health Department?

Mike Genet

As area public health officials have struggled at times to get and share the latest and best data amid the pandemic, some citizen advisers in Independence have questioned whether the city could possibly re-establish a standing health department.

City Manager Zach Walker said Monday some staff members have discussed what it might take to make that move, but cautioned later that such discussions are preliminary and “it would likely be a slowly evolving process.”

The city disbanded the department in 2018 in a cost-saving move, dispersing health functions required by the City Charter to other city departments. The city also stopped services duplicated by the Jackson County Health Department.

In May, the Advisory Board of Public Health unanimously recommended that city officials reconsider that move, concerned the city didn’t have enough ready access to COVID-19 case data to guide policy decisions. At Monday’s City Council meeting, Council Member Mike Steinmeyer said he doesn’t believe relying on the county health department has “worked out.”

“I think we miss our health department,” he said. “What would be the steps to resurrecting that?

Walker said city staff had already broached that subject, if only briefly.

“What we lack is official recognition from the state of Missouri as the official local health agency,” he said. “Ultimately what we need is recognition from the state.”

Christina Heinen, the city’s animal services director and who earlier had overseen some of the health department changes, told the health board last week that the city had been receiving more data from the county and communication had improved of late.

“They’re doing a good job of taking feedback,” she said. “They’re working to hire additional contact tracers – still something that is definitely needed.”

When the city disbanded its health department, it moved food inspections to the Community Development Department, animal services to the Police Department and wellness programs to Parks, Recreation & Tourism. Vital records, a service duplicated with the county, stopped.

At the time, no one predicted a pandemic, which has put the spotlight on those working with communicable diseases and disease prevention. The county has that service, and city officials know that would be a necessary service for regaining state recognition.

When he made the recommendation in May, board chairperson Ralph Ruckman wondered if the city could re-establish the department “maybe not at the same level as before, but to get the information we need when it’s important to get it.”

At the time, Mayor Eileen Weir said she wouldn’t rule out the idea, but also put up extreme caution.

“This isn’t just something that’s going to happen overnight,” Weir said then. “We’re going to have to think about it, and I don’t think there’s anyone from (the state) who wants to hear about this right now.”

Weir said she doesn’t regret the decision two years ago, noting that the annual savings from that move, about $400,000, allowed the city to establish the police department’s street crimes unit, addressing a more urgent problem at the time.

“I think it’s important to understand, what we did was innovative in decentralizing the health department,” the mayor said. “I know what we saved by spreading the services around. None of us knew there would be a pandemic that would put the county health department in the spotlight like it has.”