Public health staff

Jun 9, 2019 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

Personnel shortages and tight finances are meeting at an uncomfortable place in the Fremont County Public Health Nurses Office. In recent days we've reported that the office is going to do its best next month to fulfill its duties with two fewer nurses then it has now.

If things go according to plan, then it probably won't be a problem. But it is a calculated risk.

Public health offices in Fremont County have several different responsibilities. One of them is handling walk-in traffic. That tends to be a lower-demand function of the public health service, and it's the one county leaders are hoping can best absorb the coming staff shortfall.

So, Lander's public health office is going to experiment with being open just two days a week for walk-ins in July, instead of the current five days.

That's a sizable reduction, prompting some worries that services might not be available when people need them.

What public health officials are hoping is that people needing walk-in service will be concentrated into a more steady stream of "customers" that still can be well-served through the reduced schedule.

The public health nurses office isn't an emergency room, and it is not intended to function one. Occasionally, however, unplanned visits to the office do occur. It is those occasions that will concern the health providers.

Again, a calculated risk, one that goes against what most people would see as the mission of the agency.

But there isn't much choice at the moment. The departure of the two nurses won't leave enough staff for the other duties required. Further, it's not as if a qualified public health nurse can be shaken from the nearest tree. Kathy Laidlaw, who supervises the office, says it could take months to fill the two positions on the nursing staff, and there is an office staff vacancy as well.

The larger worry is that the one-month cutback in July might end up being more than simply a fingers-crossed interval until new personnel can be hired. With county budget planners examining every nickel under a microscope, the performance of the office in July might provide impetus for budget authorities - meaning the Fremont County Commissioners - to decide that the smaller staff size could be permanent without undue harm.

If it must be done this way, then the county is going about it in the sensible fashion based on the data. The Riverton office generates far more traffic than the Lander one, meaning this is one occasion when staff that already is stretched thin is being allocated in Riverton's direction rather than Lander's - based on population distribution and demand for service rather than tradition. Sharp-eyed observers are bound to compare this allocation of resources to the case of the Fremont County Clerk's and Treasurer's offices, which were closed for more than a year in Riverton and only recently have been restored on a limited basis.

Maintaining a well-staffed public health nursing office is sensible. The costs incurred by not having it have the strong potential to outweigh the hoped-for savings.

We worry that what is described as a one-time experiment could be used as a justification to cut back on the public health nursing staff permanently. Any decision of that magnitude ought to be based on more than one-month trial run in the summer.

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