A helping hand to ensure good health

By Ron Leir


As part of a growing trend among government entities, Harrison has reached out to another Hudson County community to help continue providing public health services to its residents.

On Jan. 17 the Harrison Board of Health signed an interlocal agreement with the Township of North Bergen, through its state-certified local health officer, Richard Censullo, to facilitate the delivery of those services.

The two-year agreement calls for an annual payment of $50,000 to North Bergen.

Under this arrangement, explained Mayor Raymond McDonough, Harrison “is fulfilling its duties to meet the state’s minimum health standards, as prescribed by state law.” Final approval was anticipated from the state Dept. of Health and Human Services, the mayor added.

The Board of Health went this route after the town’s veteran health officer Karen Comer retired last year. It will realize an annual savings of about $80,000 by contracting with another municipality.

Aside from North Bergen, with its 68,000 residents, Censullo said that he also serves as health officer for Union City (67,000 population), Bayonne (67,000) and now, Harrison (16,000).

For Harrison, Censullo said that, for now at least, his intent is to continue all current health services – clinics, flu vaccinations and rabies shots, tracking any communicable diseases, licensing and inspecting of local food establishments and following up on citizens’ complaints.

“I’m also in discussions with the North Hudson Community Action Corporation’s Health Center on providing a full service public health wellness program at no cost to Harrison residents,” Censullo said.

Such medical services as pediatric exams, treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy care – from sonography to actual delivery – would be made available at the Harrison Board of Health offices on Harrison Ave., he said.

Because the North Hudson agency is designated as a Federally Qualified Health Center, it is eligible for reimbursement through Medicare and Medicaid and the services it provides are offered free, according to Censullo.

“It would be one-stop shopping,” Censullo said, for residents’ primary and preventive care needs.

Censullo said he expects to learn by mid-February whether the program can be secured for Harrison.

In the meantime, Censullo said he’ll be analyzing the Harrison Board of Health’s budget to measure the effectiveness of existing services provided by a registered nurse and registered environmental health specialist, along with a contracted medical director.

“I also want to see what we can get for no cost to the Harrison taxpayer,” he said. “I want to see what public health grants are out there.”

Harrison isn’t alone in seeking outside help for meeting the demands of public health services, noted Greg Fehrenbach, management consultant to the N.J. League of Municipalities.

“Over the last 35 years or so, there has been a continued trend for municipalities to cease having their own health officer or health department and aligning with a county, regional health commission or another municipality,” Fehrenbach said.

A survey done two years ago showed that of New Jersey’s 567 municipalities, fewer than 150 provide direct health officer supervision, he said. In Middlesex County alone, for example, only four of its 25 municipalities provide directly health officer service; the rest link up to the county health department.

Aside from cost savings as the rationale for consolidation of health services, Fehrenbach pointed to the “enormous liability” attached to the job of health officer. “Look at the anthrax scare of 2001 or the flu pandemic anticipated three years ago,” he said. “There’s tremendous responsibility that goes with the job, along with the rigorous (state) requirements for certification. It’s not all that easy to find someone who also has to be a good administrator.”

But public health isn’t the only area being squeezed by governments looking to economize.

William Dressel Jr., executive director of the League of Municipalities, said: “Clearly in the last four or five years, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of interlocal agreements or shared services between municipalities, counties and even school districts.”

And, aside from health consolidation, Dressel said, “We’ve seen a number of communities giving serious consideration to sharing of municipal assessors, tax collectors, joint courts, fire protection and EMS – just about every service you can provide in a joint fashion.”

Although the state Legislature has provided for such undertakings since 1973, Dressel said the process has been accelerated during the Christie administration, “where we’ve seen towns looking at every possible way to save taxpayer dollars or to promote more and/or better services. Some have been successful; some have been rescinded.”

In Harrison, for example, the local Fire Department used to provide ambulance service; last August, the town arranged for Kearny’s Emergency Ambulance Squad personnel to handle the job with Harrison’s vehicle from the Cleveland Ave. firehouse in Harrison.

Harrison Fire Director Harold Stahl said that under a first-responder system he’s initiated, “If an emergency call is serious or life-threatening, we can roll an engine company with three or two firefighter EMTs, (on Harrison’s reserve ambulance) depending on availability of our personnel, from Harrison, but Kearny EMS is in charge of the scene.”

“If the Kearny EMS personnel are out on a call and if we can’t reach anyone through mutual aid, we’ll put our backup ambulance unit on the road,” Stahl said. If the backup unit is out on a call, then the Fire Department will send an engine with firefighter EMTs, he said.

Asked about the prospects of Harrison Fire Dept. taking back the service, Stahl said that was “unlikely” at this point because the current operation is working well and “because there are too many irons in the fire. We’re putting our best foot forward.”

Under another inter-local agreement, Harrison Police Dept. is providing dispatcher service on behalf of the East Newark Police Dept. and police officials for both communities say that’s working well.

Elsewhere in the region, the police departments of Belleville and Nutley recently explored a possible sharing of police communications but it appears that is now a dead issue, one official said.

Bloomfield is actively pursuing providing fire protection services for neighboring Glen Ridge, which currently contracts with Montclair for that service. A decision by Glen Ridge officials is anticipated shortly.

Lyndhurst has a shared service arrangement with its Board of Education for the community pool at Lyndhurst High School but has scaled back its prior agreement that provided for the use of municipal personnel to maintain school grounds.

Offering an overview of consolidated government services, Dressel said the League has offered training in applying merger strategies “but we don’t promote it as a panacea to property tax woes but, rather, a way to evaluate services in a joint fashion with a neighboring community.”

In any case, Dressel said, “it’s not something you dictate from Trenton – there’s got to be a deliberative process where the local officials have to decide if the move makes sense.”

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