Health department discusses levy

By Dean Wright -

GALLIPOLIS — Voters will be asked to consider an additional proposed tax levy for the Gallia General Health District, also known as the Gallia Health Department, for operations this coming March 17.

Gallia Health Commissioner Dr. Gerald Vallee and Gallia Health Department Director of Nursing Melissa Conkle voiced their reasoning to the Gallipolis Daily Tribune for why they want voters to consider voting yes on the additional tax.

Ballot language to be presented before voters says, “An additional tax for the benefit of the County of Gallia, for the purpose of providing sufficient funds to carry out the health programs by the Gallia county Board of Health at a rate not exceeding one half (0.5) mill for each one dollar of valuation, which amounts to five cents ($0.05) for each one hundred dollars of valuation, for a period of ten (10) years, commencing in 2020, first due in calendar year 2021.”

Voters are then asked to approve or deny the levy.

“It’s a half a mill levy and new,” said Vallee. “Right now, we have a half a mill levy that’s in place. Every county in our district and the state of Ohio has at least a one mill levy anyway. This would bring us up to speed with surrounding counties. When people ask why we need a levy you simply have to point to our increased expenses that we have no control over. Example, employee insurance increases that we try to hold down.”

The levy currently in place is up for renewal in about two years, Vallee said.

According to Vallee, Ohio gives the health department 19 cents a county resident and most of its money comes from its levy. U.S. 2010 Census information puts Gallia’s population at roughly 31,000 residents.

“Last year, we almost exceeded (levy funding) taking in funds from our nurse practitioner,” said Vallee. “Now, we had to spend money to do that. This year, we think, probably our receipts from our nurse practitioner and our nurses will be more than our levy. That’s kind of unheard of.”

The health department received $380,435 from its levy in 2019. Assuming similar financial conditions hold, the department would receive double that if the newly proposed levy passes.

The department as a governmental agency focuses on making routine inspections of businesses, septic systems, recording statistics for area health trends and diseases and provides vaccines among some of its services. The department opened a primary care clinic in January 2018 with a nurse practitioner. The department also administers health grant programs assisting mothers, newborns and reproductive health.

Should the department not receive funding, the health commissioner said that the department may have to start cutting programs. The department engages in non-state mandated programs such as certain immunization programs, mosquito control and surveillance, outreach flu clinics, lead screenings, chest clinics, family practice clinics, gas monitoring of landfills, athletic physicals, CPR training and more.

“If it (passes) we’re looking to continue our programs,” said Vallee, “at a very cheap if not free cost. We give a lot of things away and we’re low cost. If our levy fails, it may entail personnel loss. People who are excellent individuals, well trained and do a good job. Costs just go up and up and up. We have to do it. We try to keep things like our insurance low.”

Of reported Hepatitis B cases in Gallia there were 23 in 2015, 28 in 2016, 29 in 2017 and 24 in 2018. Through immunizations, the health department said immunization efforts were able to drop such cases to 13 in 2019. Around 205 individuals were vaccinated for Hepatitis B in 2017, 628 in 2018 and 444 in 2019.

The department spent $18,872 on flu vaccines in 2010. It spent $72,669 on flu vaccines in 2019. Roughly 3,300 flu vaccines were given in 2019.

The department addressed controversy in fall 2018 about its needle exchange program with the following statement, “Recently there have been some misconceptions regarding the Gallia County Health Departments Harm Reduction Program. Many of these misconceptions have stemmed from the lack of knowledge regarding the program and its operational goals. This program was not designed to treat individuals suffering from addiction. The Gallia County Health Department does not offer mental health services, although we do provide treatment information and referrals for addiction services. This program was created as an evidence-based CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) best practice. The Health Department exchanges dirty syringes for clean ones. By doing so, the Health Department is decreasing the risk for the spread of infectious diseases, primarily Hepatitis C, which is spread blood-to-blood. This also keeps the vast majority of dirty syringes out of our parks and public spaces because individuals must exchange in order to receive clean syringes. To date, 190,785 syringes have been destroyed and 146,914 have been distributed. It is incorrect to state that removing the exchange program will decrease the amount of individuals suffering with addiction from frequenting Gallia County. Of the 1,234 exchange program visits in 2019, 915 are Gallia County residents, 212 are Point Pleasant (W.Va.) residents, and 107 other. The vast majority of individuals utilizing these services are our community residents. Removing this program will directly impact Gallia County. Since the program was implemented in August 2015, Hepatitis C cases have decreased in Gallia County. In 2016, there were 138 new Hepatitis C cases, 105 in 2017, 100 in 2018, and 82 in 2019. Removing access to clean syringes will not curb the use of drugs. It would only increase the amount of sharing and reusing syringes, in turn increasing the amount of infectious disease spread by this community along with the improper disposal of dirty syringes. The program goal is prevention, not permission. Preventing just one case of Hepatitis C and HIV will save taxpayer dollars, not to mention the life of an individual suffering with addiction.”

Reportedly, the department has destroyed another 43,000 needles since the statement was given. It was also previously reported that there were 70 cases of Hepatitis C in Gallia in 2019 but corrected itself to say there were 82. The program is solely donation funded.

Between 2011 and 2018 the health department has given 33,237 pediatric and adult immunizations, 26,637 birth and death certificates, 951 children with medical handicaps home visitations, 38,408 flu shots, 13,670 tuberculosis tests, 4,044 food inspections, 984 nuisance investigations, 615 rabies investigations, 2,190 sewage system inspections, 62,482 scrap tires collected and recycled and more.

“There are a lot of things we do here the public may just not know about,” said Vallee. “We’re here to keep them healthy.”

Dean Wright is a staff writer for Ohio Valley Publishing and can be reached at 740-446-2342.

By Dean Wright