Health department: Indiana move 'a dead issue'

WATSEKA — The Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department has decided not to pursue its plan to provide home-health services in Indiana, Public Health Administrator Doug Corbett announced Tuesday afternoon, one day after the Iroquois County Board’s attorney warned the move would be illegal.

“The issue is dead,” Corbett said in a written statement. “We have always said that if we received a legal opinion that we could not cross into Indiana that we would abide by that ruling.  Until last night, no one had told us that we could not legally move forward.”

Iroquois County State’s Attorney Jim Devine advised the county board of his opinion at the start of a special meeting Monday night that was called to consider the removal and replacement of three of the county’s four appointees on the Ford-Iroquois Board of Health.

Devine said he consulted the Illinois Attorney General’s Office about whether it would be legal to spend taxpayer dollars on services provided outside of Ford and Iroquois counties. The attorney general’s office did not take any stance on the issue but advised Devine to interpret the state statutes strictly.

Devine said there is “no precedent” or judge’s opinion to rely on in interpreting the law. But he said the law appears clear: “Nothing in the statute suggests you can go outside your borders,” Devine said.

Ford County State’s Attorney Matt Fitton said late Monday night by telephone that he has not formed his own opinion yet but was still “looking into it.”

Meanwhile, the removal of the board of health members was proposed by County Board Chairman Rod Copas of rural Onarga, a staunch opponent of the health department’s decision to start providing home-health services in Benton and Newton counties in Indiana.

Copas said he feels the board of health did not do its “due diligence” in checking into the legalities of the law before making a decision to spend tax dollars from Ford and Iroquois counties across the state line. He also said there was no attempt by the health department’s board or administration to notify the county board of the plan prior to its approval last July.

The county board did not vote on the removal of the board of health members Monday, with officials saying they wanted more time to deliberate the issue before making any decision.

Devine on Monday encouraged the county board to “re-establish a dialogue” with the board of health to resolve the legal issue. The board made plans to form an advisory committee, also comprising members of the Ford County Board, to monitor the activities of the health department and make recommendations.

Both Copas and Ford County Board Chairman Rick Bowen said they would be working with their respective state’s attorneys to set up the advisory committee with the intent of appointing board members to it at their regular February board meetings.

Corbett said he appreciates the support that the community has provided to the health department during the “home-health in Indiana debate” and that he is hopeful that the Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department Board and the two county boards can “work together in the future to best serve the needs of our residents.”

Cost vs. benefit
Corbett said the health department decided to look into the expansion of home-health services into Indiana after the agency became aware of a need for providing the service in Benton and Newton counties, which are extremely rural and have large elderly populations.

The move was also considered a way to generate revenue to help address a projected $138,000 shortfall in this fiscal year’s budget, thus avoiding a property tax increase. Corbett stressed that the services would be provided for a fee charged to those receiving the services, so the programs would pay for themselves.

But Copas said he feels the health department, which receives about 20 percent of its budget from property taxes in Ford and Iroquois counties, should not be legally allowed to spend money generated in its jurisdiction on services provided outside of the two counties.

According to information obtained from the health department through a Freedom of Information Act request last week, the agency has already spent $3,691 on the Indiana home-health program. The total consists of a one-time expense of $30 to the Indiana Secretary of State’s Office for a license to operate in Indiana; $1,000 to hire a consultant, Rebecca Zuber, to assist in licensing requirements in opening the new Indiana branch; $2,400 in rental payments to Novotny Real Estate dating back to Aug. 8 for an office in Kentland, Ind.; $114 in monthly utility bills paid to Kentland Utilities; and $147 in monthly bills to Nipsco, a natural gas and electricity supplier.

The agency has also arranged for the hiring of a doctor from Kentland, Ind., to serve as a medical director for the Indiana home-health program. Corbett said the medical director would be paid $150 per month.

Corbett estimated Monday night that it would take about $6,000 in costs to get the program in operation. He was unable to immediately provide an estimate for how much money the program would generate but said the health department could “make up a lot” of the agency’s budget deficit by moving forward with it.

Micromanaging the agency?
Corbett complained Monday that the county board is “trying to micromanage” the health department.

However, former Iroquois County Board Chairman Ron Schroeder of St. Anne backed Copas in “trying to get the administration at the health department to cooperate” with the county board.

In December, after being named chairman of the county board, Copas appointed himself to the board of health. Copas replaced Susan Wynn Bence as the Iroquois County Board’s representative on the health department board, which also comprises one representative from the Ford County Board and three other appointees from each county.

Late last week, Copas called a meeting for Monday for the purpose of removing the other three of Iroquois County’s appointees as a result of disagreement over the health department’s direction.

“We need to take a long look at how things have been done, and why. So we’re going to replace the three (appointees) that are ours, and, hopefully, we can move forward,” Copas said last Friday.

But the board voted unanimously to remove the item listed on Monday’s agenda, at the request of District 4 board member Scott Watts of Watseka.

“We haven’t had enough time to deliberate,” Watts said.

Who’s on the board
Besides Copas, of rural Onarga, Iroquois County’s representatives on the board of health are: Diane Clatterbuck, a registered nurse from Donovan; Jill Kaeb, a registered nurse from Cissna Park; and Dr. Alexander Michalow, a Bradley resident who has an orthopedic practice at Iroquois Memorial Hospital in Watseka.

All board of health members are appointed to three-year terms, except the county board appointees, who serve indefinite terms, according to health department spokesman Julie Clark.

Clark said the board of health members who were being considered for removal all have terms expiring in December 2013. Clatterbuck originally was appointed in 1992, while Kaeb has been on the board since 2004 and Michalow since 2010.

Ford County’s board of health appointees are not expected to be changed. They are: the board’s president-elect, Dr. Kevin Brucker of Gibson City; Dr. Bernadette Ray of Gibson City; the Rev. Teddie Jensen of Piper City; and Elynor Stagen of Gibson City, who is the Ford County Board’s representative.

Ironically, the Iroquois County appointees who were being targeted for removal from the board of health were not at the July 16 meeting in which the board voted 5-0 to proceed with the Indiana home-health program. The only health board members present were Wynn Bence, then-president Ray, Brucker, Stagen and Jensen.

Confusion over ‘closure’
During Monday’s meeting, some county board members questioned the source of a rumor that the health department would be dissolved if the Indiana home-health plan moves forward.

The board’s vice president, Kyle Anderson of Watseka, said the rumors have created a “Facebook nightmare.”

Board member Russell Bills of Watseka held up a copy of a news release from the health department, stating that “rumors that the health department may be closed down have generated a barrage of questions from health department employees, their clients and taxpayers.” The news release was announcing that the board of health had called a special meeting for Jan. 22 to address the rumors.

Bills said the news release’s language looks like “a marketing fear factor at this point.”

Last Tuesday’s meeting
Tempers flared during the 90-minute special board of health meeting, held in front of a standing-room-only crowd estimated at more than 100 people.
Many wanted answers from Copas about his intentions.

Copas was noncommittal on whether he would push for the dissolution of the health department, although he did say, “if we keep spending money in Indiana, it is going to be a problem.”

On Friday, he stressed, however: “We’re not trying to dissolve it at this point; we’re trying to fix it.”

Copas confirmed that he has already had initial discussions with officials at Iroquois Memorial Hospital in Watseka to explore the possibility of the hospital taking over the duties of the health department if the agency is eventually dissolved. Copas said it would be a “backup plan if something goes wrong.”

Wellness program in Indy
In addition to the home-health services, the health department board has approved entering into a contract with Health Chek/Health Coach Systems, based in Watseka, for the health department to provide employee wellness coaching in Indiana as well as throughout Central Illinois, Corbett said.

But like the home-health program, the wellness program has yet to be started in Indiana.

“We have simply talked with a company to see if there is any interest on their part in doing something should we expand our home-health services to Indiana,” Clark said.

Ford County not so upset
Unlike Copas, Bowen has not spoken out against the idea of the health department expanding some services into the two Indiana counties. He said in October that he liked the idea that “we are taking the blinders off and thinking outside of the box.” He reiterated his feelings during last week’s board of health meeting, saying he had no problem with the program if it is legal and ethical.

Copas, meanwhile, said a resolution created when the health department board was formed in 1980 clearly states that it was formed “to serve the public-health needs of the people of Ford and Iroquois counties.”

Barbara Offill, president of the Iroquois County tea party, told the county board Monday: “Let Indiana take care of their own. We need to take care of ours.”

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