The Ouray Board of County Commissioners formally established the new county department on Monday, in response to a bill passed by the state Legislature with the intent of standardizing public health care throughout the state.
Senate Bill 194 was adopted during the 2008 legislative session and signed into law by Gov. Bill Ritter. The law requires all counties to formally establish a public health department to include nursing services as well as environmental safety.
“The intent of the bill was to strengthen public health departments throughout the state because there had been two models,” Roberts said.
Some large counties already have public health departments, said Roberts, but many small, rural counties like Ouray are only able to provide limited services for nursing and home health care, which do not include environmental services such as food service inspection.
However, about two years ago, Roberts helped establish the West Central Public Health Partnership with five other counties to provide environmental services for Ouray, Hinsdale, Gunnison, Montrose, San Miguel, and Delta counties.
Delta County Public Health Director Bonnie Koehler said her county was already offering environmental services at the time, but the partnership has served to enhance and expand them.
“I know for Gunnison, Montrose and Ouray counties, they’re seeing a marked difference in being able to have environmental services integrated with personal health,” Koehler said.
Before the partnership, Montrose County’s environmental health services were limited to food service inspection and land use directives such as septic tank inspection, said Peg Mewes, director of Montrose County Health and Human Services.
“With the initiation of West Central Public Health Partnership, we now have an almost full environmental health program that has been used to assist other counties like Ouray who also did not have environmental services,” Mewes said.
Now Montrose and other counties provide services like investigating prairie dog die-offs, mosquito trapping for West Nile virus, water quality inspection, school chemical cleanup, food service inspection and complaints, sewage and water issues, radon inspection and more.
As a result of the collaboration, Ouray County conducted tests last year at the Ouray School for radon levels, which were “extremely high,” Roberts said. With that knowledge, the school was able to put in mitigation barriers to reduce those levels, she said.
Roberts was also able to have the Ouray Fire Department order the owners of Red Mountain Lodge to stop burning the old facility because smoke was settling in the canyon where the city of Ouray is located.
“They had gotten (burn) permits but no air quality control permits,” Roberts said. “Now everyone is regulated.”
The partnership was made possible through a need-based, five-year, $75,000 grant from the Colorado Trust, written by Carol Dawson, retired public health director for Gunnison County.
“We needed to do a five-year community needs assessment and coordinate some of the emergency preparedness measures,” said Mewes. “Those were our first year goals, and each year we work as a group to see what we’re going to do.”
The partnership has been so successful that the state has used it as a prototype for other small counties to collaborate, Roberts said.
Commissioner Heidi Albritton will serve as vice director of the county’s new public health organization and Michael Benziger was appointed medical officer.