By Jim Nowlan
“Good health starts at home, not in the nurse practitioner’s exam room,” says Rae Ann Tucker, director of health promotion for the Henry-Stark County Health Department. “If you’re not eating right at home, obesity and pre-diabetes develop among the children, and physical and emotional problems can follow.”
Recently released annual reports by the two-county health agency prompted The News to inquire about what the department does, how it can help readers, and what the future holds in the agency’s expanded new headquarters in Kewanee.
“We offer health services from the beginning to the end of life,” notes Duane Stevens, administrator of the health department, “and we are here for everyone, not just those who fall through the cracks of health care coverage.
“We accept all major insurance plans and we will also have cash pricing, which is often much less than charges by other health providers and of great value to persons with high deductible insurance plans.”
The Henry-Stark health unit is planning to expand its clinic operation into a full-service walk-in clinic in September, operating 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. five days a week. The clinic will be staffed by two family nurse practitioners.
Early next year, the agency plans to move into new, expanded space in the former Sav-A-Lot building on the east edge of downtown Kewanee. Stevens says the larger space will allow for more exam rooms and the addition of mental health services. The health department also has an office in Colona, near the Quad-Cities.
Public health departments are an outgrowth of the old “county nurse” program. As a teen in the 1950s, I recall that Stark County nurse Mary Ryan, with her highly professional demeanor, went out to the countryside to provide basic health services to families that might never see a doctor.
In 1966, Henry formed its health department, and in 1991 the Stark County Board of Supervisors voted to join Henry County.
The agency provides “environmental health” oversight of public food services as well as of some potable water and sewage matters.
The administrator is also proud of the fact that his department is a certified Level-III incident management emergency entity: “We have combined our health emergency management operation with the county’s disaster management program. This is also unusual in the state.”
Yet the Henry-Stark Health Department is known to the public largely for its direct health care services and health promotion advocacy. Stevens says the health department is a bit unusual among the state’s 90 health departments in that it goes beyond the regulatory functions to offer a full-service health clinic for the public plus extensive in-home health services.
Tucker has seen a big shift in health needs:
“There has been a decline in vaccine-mediated diseases such a chicken pox, but significant increases in behavior-driven problems that affect our blood, heart, lungs and cancer-prone bodies.”
Home health services, the original purpose of the county nurses, has expanded significantly in recent years as a result of Medicare coverage for some services as well as big increases in funding from the Illinois Department on Aging.
Henry-Stark provided skilled nursing services to almost 150 elderly patients in the past year and personal in-home services such as meal preparation, medication management, light housekeeping and such to 530 persons, helping many remain in their homes in their later years.
Ten maternal and child health services are also offered, to more than 1,000 mothers and their children [this figure uncertain, and probably low; a bit hard to tell from annual reports] and include the WIC (women and infant children) program.
According to Tucker, WIC provides nutritional food such as baby food supplements, fresh fruits and vegetables to mothers and their children. Tucker said “eating right” is not easy in this day of “dollar meals” at fast food restaurants. WIC attempts to offset the pull of sugary and fried empty calorie foods during the critical early stages of a child’s development.
Stevens is part of a state task force that is looking for ways to shift more food purchases from SNAP (the old food stamp program), where candy bars and other unhealthy foods are allowable, to WIC, which emphasizes healthy eating.
Both Stevens and Tucker lament the unhealthy eating habits of so many area residents.
“I can get teachers and kids pumped up about eating right when I speak in their school classrooms,” says Tucker, “but if healthy food isn’t what’s available first-and-foremost in the home, the kids fall into bad eating habits.”
Stevens and Tucker bring financial management and communications skills, respectively, to their jobs. An accountant by training, Stevens served as chief financial officer for Henry County from 2000-2005, before taking a similar position with the health department. He has been the administrator for the past five years.
“We have terrific health professionals on our team, and I rely on them, of course, yet running this operation effectively is also largely about numbers, and that’s my strength,” says Stevens.
For more information, call (309) 852-0197 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday or go online to henrystarkhealth.com.