Easton turned the page when it elected Dr. David Bindelglass as its new first selectman this past November, but that’s not the only change brewing in town government.
Easton is weighing a decision to join the Westport-based Westport Weston Health District (WWHD). In addition to promoting itself as the first health district formed and recognized in the state, the WWHD claims to be fully compliant with all state public health service and reporting mandates.
So what exactly is a health district? The Connecticut Department of Public Health defines it as a regional public health department formed by two or more municipalities to provide local public health services. It’s a governmental agency governed by state laws, but separate from the town(s) it serves.
The WWHD is governed by a Board of Directors appointed by the First Selectmen of Westport and Weston. Its mission is fourfold: (1) Prevent the start and spread of communicable diseases; (2) Promote wellness to the community through health education activities that focus on disease prevention and risk reduction; (3) Protect the health of residents through its emergency preparedness program; and (4) Preserve water and environmental quality. Through its Community Health Department, the district achieves its mission of health promotion and disease prevention through education, screenings, immunizations, and surveillance.
The impetus for joining the WWHD involved a meeting between Bindelglass and Polly Edwards, the town’s registered sanitarian/health officer, soon after he took office. She informed him that after 28 years, she was planning to retire at the end of this fiscal year, June 30, and that something needed to be done with the town’s Health Department to cope with its mounting public health demands.
Edwards lamented that the responsibility of doing an effective job had become too unwieldy, given the department’s lack of manpower and part-time status. “Most of the time we don’t have answers for a lot of issues and, honestly, I often have to refer people to the clinic at the WWHD if they have questions about vaccinations or travel. Often we refer people to their primary care doctors if they have medical questions.”
The undesirable result is that the town is no longer in compliance with state health mandates.
Asked during his Brown Bag Luncheon at Town Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 18, whether the town was looking to hire another health director, Bindelglass responded that a position had not been posted. “Polly believes that it would be very difficult to find somebody who’s qualified to do this, to work part-time without any benefits and under these conditions.”
Edwards recommended to Bindelglass that Easton join the WWHD. (Dr. Chris Michos, the town’s Director of Public Health, also supports joining the WWHD, according to Bindelglass.) The health district provides a broad range of free- or low-cost services to members of the community that Easton can’t match. It’s worth noting that these additional services would not replace or cancel Senior Center programming. Edwards said in an interview, “It’d be terrific if Easton brought on a nurse, a full-time sanitarian, and a health director because the town has no nursing staff, none of the equipment or the ability to do follow-ups with people living in town. In contrast, the WHHD has several nurses on staff, an established clinic, the expertise, all the resources and equipment, and community services. We can’t do any of that. We need to be part of a bigger picture. The WWHD is an established health district that enjoys a very good reputation. I’ve known the health director since the 1970s.”
Those who attended the Brown Bag Luncheon learned that joining the WWHD would make these services available to the community at the same level budgeted to run Easton’s department alone — or about $100,000. In addition, the state would kick in per capita funding, which would include not only Easton’s population, but also Westport’s and Weston’s. “The increased state contribution is the reason the WWHD can make it revenue-neutral taking in Easton; it’s what allows the WWHD to provide us with the services,” Bindelglass said.
While the WWHD’s main office is seven miles from Easton Town Hall, a satellite office would remain in Easton, staffed with WWHD employees. The Easton location would continue to have part-time hours. Homeowners and contractors would have access to the Westport location five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Joining the WWHD seems to be an attractive proposition, but some in the community have expressed reservations. June Logie acknowledged the benefits the WWHD would provide from a medical standpoint, but fears farming out environmental duties to the health district, especially as that would encompass the job of protecting the quality of the town’s precious water resources.
“We’ve got the reservoirs, we’re the stewards of the water, that’s a huge concern at this point, and I know people from CFE (Citizens For Easton) are very concerned because they’ve spent many years anteing up for lawsuits to protect the watershed and the reservoirs.”
Mark Cooper, the WWHD’s Director of Public Health, understands these concerns and is confident the health district has the expertise and resources to support Easton’s environmental objectives. “Easton currently has two part-time sanitarians. I myself have a very strong environmental background, but the WWHD also has three full-time sanitarians who are trained to respond to all kinds of environmental issues, such as inspecting and approving septic systems and making sure they’re properly sized, installed, and functioning.”
Those skeptical of any town proposal to join the WWHD argue that an additional cost analysis should be part of a “Plan B” scenario in which Easton remained independent, i.e. didn’t join the WWHD, and brought its Health Department into compliance with state regulations.
Adding to the unease is the specter of Easton becoming a small fish in a big pond. This is a genuine possibility seeing as there’d be nothing preventing the WWHD from bringing other towns into the fold. The impact that would have on the quality of service Easton receives is unclear.
Edwards allayed some of these fears by pointing out that Easton would not be unique among towns of similar size joining forces with a health district. Other communities have taken that step, and most of these relationships have remained intact. Furthermore, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, Easton could vote to withdraw from the WWHD at any time, so long as the town’s been part of the health district for at least 24 months prior to such a vote.
Easton residents are invited to attend two public information sessions, where representatives from the WWHD will present the organization’s services/capabilities and answer any questions they have.
- Monday, March 2 at 7:30 p.m. in the Easton Library Community Room
- Thursday, March 5 at 9:30 a.m. at the Easton Senior Center
A Public Hearing is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, April 22 at 7:30 p.m. in the Easton Library Community Room.