Lehigh County Commissioners may ax health department at next meeting
The Lehigh County Board of Commissioners discussed a bill that would withdraw Lehigh County from the joint department of health it shares with Northampton County at its July 25 meeting in Allentown.
It was the first reading and discussion of the bill, which is co-sponsored by commissioners Michael Schware, Thomas Creighton III, Vic Mazziotti, Brad Osborne, Scott Ott and Lisa Scheller. The bill will be voted on at the next board of commissioners meeting scheduled for this evening.
Schware, who represents District 5, said financial considerations were the primary reason for wanting to withdraw from the bicounty health department.
"It's something that initially might cost county taxpayers a little bit, but in the future it's something that will certainly grow," Schware said. "As we've learned this year, there's no guarantee in state funding and given the economic situation going forward, I don't see a case where this makes sense from a financial standpoint."
District 2 Commissioner Percy Dougherty, however, opposed the bill and said that pulling out of the joint-county department of health would be a mistake.
"We have less than a third of the population of the Lehigh Valley served by a health department," Dougherty said. "We find that most of the coverage is in the city of Allentown and in the city of Bethlehem. What we need is the same services sent out to the suburbs. Under a joint department, we are looking for universal coverage."
Lehigh County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the creation of a joint health department with Northampton County in 2007, but it has never been given an operating budget.
Dougherty suggested that the board hold off on deciding the fate of the department.
"I would hope that rather than killing this at the next meeting, we instead look into some alternatives," Dougherty said. "Can we just simply put it on the shelf and wait for better economic times to come around or some other options?"
Halyna Stegura, a Lower Macungie resident who has served on the Lehigh Valley Board of Health since its inception, also spoke in defense of the health department. Stegura said that counties in Pennsylvania with health departments have lower infant mortality rates as well as a lower percentage of heart disease, diabetes and cancer-related deaths. She also said that as a citizen of suburban Lehigh County, she should have the same access to health coverage as those who live in urban areas.
"I am saddened to know that I do not have the same rights as those who live in Allentown," Stegura said. "I believe that I should be afforded the same rights through the health department."
"We have 30 days from the date of Mr. Cunningham's exit from the office, July 9, to make a recommendation to the board and 45 days for the board to vote on that before it would go to the courts, which we are committed to not having happen," Ott said.