A long line of people awaits the opportunity for public comment at Tuesday’s Los Alamos County Council meeting, many of them wishing to address the current lack of services at the State Public Health Office. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess update County Council members during their Tuesday meeting on the progress being made in increasing the amount o service being provided by the state Department of Health’s public health office (PHO) in Los Alamos.
He said during the legislative session a few weeks ago, he received a call from Rep. Chris Chandler to inform him that she had recommended that the Legislature set aside $150,000 a year for operation of a full-service PHO in Los Alamos. The lack of service at the PHO for the past two years is a concern that has been voiced throughout the community, particularly with regard to the effect on Los Alamos High School students. A bill providing those funds had passed the House and Senate and was awaiting signature by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Burgess said.
Burgess said at the time he spoke to Chandler, she told him she had spoken to the Secretary of the Department of Health and that he had received a phone call the next day from the Deputy Secretary who then came to Los Alamos and met with him at the PHO site.
“He was very appreciative of the location. We talked about the proximity to the school. We talked about the current level of service. He expressed that his direction from the Secretary was that they would reestablish a public health office here. Now, that comes with some caveats regarding time but basically that was the point from which he was working from at that time,” Burgess said. “We discussed the potential for additional revenue per my conversation with Representative Chandler. He was aware of that and stated that that revenue would only enhance their ability to get a new office stood up in a shorter amount of time.”
Burgess said the state does not at present have a nurse nor a clerk that they could assign to the Los Alamos location.
“They would have to go through the recruitment process but he anticipated that it would be a couple of months’time before they would have somebody available here. We discussed the needs. He ultimately committed to reestablishing the full five days a week type of operation,” he said.
Burgess said that was news because the County had not had any conversation with DOH on the issue for probably 18 months on what they intended to do.
“So we have been working through the past year through two (request for proposals) processes to obtain a potential provider of services here that met some federal qualifications as a federal health care facility FH2C. The reason we were pursuing that is that if offered some of the confidentiality issues you heard some of the confidentiality issues raised by high school students. Without that designation, they would be required to divulge information to insurers or parents, especially for reproductive type issues, which was of concern,” he said.
Burgess said the County has a proposal on hand for a potential provider and his direction to staff has been to hold off on issuing a contract.
“We’re still developing the contract in concert with the proposal but not seeking signatures or ultimate negotiations on that until we knew more on what the state process would provide. Waiting is important because we had not contemplated shared use of that facility. In fact when we sought out an alternate provider it was because we did not anticipate the DOH would have a need for that space that we currently have. We did not contemplate an alternate location and at present we lease the space that has been used historically for the PHO,” he said.
Burgess added that here has been a statement made that if the bill does not get signed, and if the $150,000 does not become available, it would still be the DOH’s interest to expand the PHO but that it was take longer, possibly as long as a year before the state would be able to find the monies within their budget to provide that level of service.
Burgess noted that representatives of the DOH would be in town Thursday to meet with school district and County person and that he expected to have a better prognosis after that meeting.
Earlier in the meeting County Community Services Director Brian Brogan gave a history of the County Social Services Department mission, organization chart and current activities. The Council heard public comment from several entities as well as three LAHS juniors, Isabel Hodgins, Sophia Vandenkieboom and Gracie Swenson.
The three students told the Council they have been researching what high school students can do to extend the hours of the PHO. They reported on a survey they conducted with their AP Language class where they asked students if they would personally take advantage of the PHO and that 67 percent had responded that the PHO would be beneficial to them personally and 85 percent agreeing that extending the hours would benefit the community as a whole.
The students reported that it can take up to five tries currently to get an appointment at the PHO and that students can then be sent to Espanola for treatment. They said a full-service PHO across the street from the high school would benefit the school greatly.
“We value our student body’s health and I think that we can all agree as a community that putting the County-funded clinic off until the Department of Health steps up to fund it ignores out community’s current needs,” one student said.
The students told the Council that the fact that Los Alamos currently doesn’t have a fulltime PHO is a problem noting that there has been some Youth Risk and Resiliency data indicating that some 44 percent of students did not use a condom the last time they had sex which is a 20 percent increase from 2005 and that only 35 percent use effective birth control methods when sexually active.
“We believe this might be because the public health care center was closed or the hours were reduced. A public health care center where students can go to be educated and get those services would be very beneficial,” a student said.
The students said they wanted the PHO to focus on mental health, reproductive health and physical health. They said mental health is one of the main priorities because the YRRS data from November 2018 indicated that 33.2 percent of LAHS students felt sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in the last year and of that 33.2 percent, 24.5 percent hurt themselves without the intention to die.
“Reproductive health kind of portrays the idea that students just need protection so that they can have sex but reproductive health is defined as the state of physical, mental and social well-being in matters relating to the reproductive system at all stages of life. Physical health is advocating for students and community members needing vaccinations or physical and wellness checks like anyone else does,” the students noted.
Los Alamos Public Schools Healthy Schools Initiative Director Kristine Coblentz said the top concerns of student team are mental health and sexual health – serious concerns the students have identified from their own public health data. She noted that while the PHO currently says it is open three days a week, that just means that the lobby is open.
“Nurse services are available the first and third Tuesdays of the month so if I as the client would like an appointment I have two days on which to secure an appointment and I need to call often to the Espanola Health Office to get that appointment,” she said.