Wayne County’s life expectancy ranks second lowest among Indiana’s 92 counties, at about 73 years.

The county’s health department is preparing to address factors that end lives prematurely, using additional funding it will receive from the recently passed two-year state budget. That budget includes a $225 million investment in public health.

Counties must opt to receive the funding, agree to meet additional requirements for providing core services and continue funding local health at its current level. The Board of Health voted May 18 for Wayne County to accept the funding. Wayne County’s commissioners now have until Sept. 1 to officially opt-in to the funding.

“You’ll start to see programming that is going to address the leading causes of death of Wayne County citizens,” said Christine Stinson, the health department’s executive director, after she updated board members about her plans for the funding influx.

Factors such as traffic accidents, including from distracted driving, and heart disease that results from obesity and smoking will be targeted. 

So far, Stinson has only received a range of how much Wayne County will receive in new funding, but she presented a plan based on the 2024 minimum of $773,678.63. The maximum the county could receive in 2024 is $1,031,571.50. The funding doubles in 2025 with a $1,547,357.25 minimum and a $2,063,143 maximum.

Gov. Eric Holcomb, who appointed a health commission to study the state’s health and provide recommendations, asked the legislature for $350 million over the next two years. The state has funded public health at about $7 million per year.

“I am pleased that they have recognized that public health needed increased funding,” Stinson said. “I certainly understand the fiscal responsibility that the legislators had to look at. (I) would have loved for them to fund it at the governor’s complete ask, but I can add programming with what they have given to us that will improve the lives of the citizens of Wayne County.”

The first year’s plan includes hiring two health educators—an environmental health specialist and a community health worker—plus switching costs of the current medical assistant and grant manager/bookkeeper positions to that funding. The preliminary budget for the extra funding also includes purchasing three vehicles, radio and television advertisements and travel for new employee training.

Stinson said the first year is about laying a foundation for the doubled funding in 2025. The new positions would address core requirements such as tobacco prevention and cessation, chronic disease prevention and reduction, and trauma and injury prevention and education.

The environmental health specialist would educate property owners about well water testing and advocate for the county to adopt a well ordinance. The department could also develop an ordinance addressing tattoo shops that requires inspections; whereas, it currently only addresses tattoo complaints.

To address distracted driving, Stinson would like to create a program to talk with new, young drivers about accident consequences. It’s a topic she said is very important to her. Stinson’s son, Evan Dely, was killed June 17, 2022, when a distracted driver struck his vehicle on Interstate 465 in Indianapolis.

Stinson said increased funding will lead to marked differences in the public health department.

“It really is a fundamental shift from reactive public health to proactive,” she said.

Stinson presented the health board with her preliminary 2024 budget request for county funding. The department is asking for $798,725 in county funds, which the board approved. Wayne County Council will soon begin its 2024 budgeting process and has final say about the department’s budget.

During the meeting, the board also:

Heard from Dr. David Jetmore, the county’s health officer, that COVID-19 is no longer a pandemic. The emergency status officially ended May 11.

Met Becca Allison, the health department’s new clinical director, who Stinson introduced. Allison, who is a dietitian by trade, was in her second week working with the health department.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 24 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Mike Emery is a reporter and layout editor for the Western Wayne News.