By Nick Kotsopoulos TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
WORCESTER — The city is partnering with UMass Memorial Health Care Inc. and the University of Massachusetts Medical School to redefine its public health mission, in the wake of deep budget cuts that have virtually wiped out the Public Health Division.
City Manager Michael V. O’Brien informed the City Council yesterday that he will be assembling a task force, in cooperation with the Board of Health, to research and develop a public health core mission for the city that is based on national best practices and reflects a sustainable financial model.
He said the task force, which is to be established by May 31, will have until Sept. 30 to define a scope of core public health services to be provided by the city; outline an appropriate staffing level for the Public Health Division; and identify appropriate performance measurement tools to gauge the city’s progress in improving overall public health.
The manager said he also expects the task force’s recommendations for the Public Health Division will ensure its mission complements work already being conducted by local hospitals, physicians, community health providers, colleges, universities and social service agencies.
Mr. O’Brien said the city has received a commitment from UMass Memorial Health Care and the UMass Medical School to provide financial and in-kind support for this effort.
In addition, during this transition period, Mr. O’Brien said, UMass Memorial and UMass Medical have offered the assistance of registered nurse graduate students for infectious disease surveillance in the event of an outbreak. Also, UMass Memorial said it is willing to discuss the reallocation of existing grant funding to support public health nurses in focusing on infectious disease surveillance and tuberculosis case management.
“While the city is forced to reduce the services that it provides through its Division of Public Health due to budget constraints, I am confident that working with our partners in UMass Memorial and UMass Medical, we can develop a world-class Division of Public Health and community health network in Worcester. I am grateful to UMass Memorial and UMass Medical for their assistance during this transition period.”
Because of budget constraints facing the city, Mr. O’Brien’s $491.1 million fiscal 2010 budget proposal has virtually dismantled the Public Health Division, with its overall staffing being reduced from 20 to five. Among those laid off included five public health nurses, leaving two to cover the city.
City Councilor-at-Large Frederick C. Rushton said he felt the process is a bit backward because the city manager made the budget cuts first before a plan was developed as to how the city was going to fill the void those cuts created. He said he is also concerned about the city’s abilities to respond to public health needs in the community during the next several months while the task force does its work.
Councilor-at-Large Kathleen M. Toomey said she would like to see the city retain its public health staffing, especially among its public health nurses, until the Public Health Division’s mission is redefined and those strategies can be implemented.