Pinal County’s public health care system has been overburdened by a growing population and not enough money to provide services — prompting a conference to head off a potentially critical situation, officials say.
Friday’s summit “Developing Resources in Times of Growth,” at Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino-Resort in Maricopa, will be a first-of-its-kind “candid discussion” about the current state and future needs for health and human services in Pinal County, said Thomas Schryer, Pinal County director of public health. Public and private entities from across the state will be involved.
“We need a real plan instead of letting funding sources dictate what we’re going to do,” he said. “We want folks to understand that there are real practical needs here. Programs like public health are heavily dependent on grant funding, and that funding dictates what we can do.”
Grants fund 80 percent of the Pinal County health department and that funding has stayed steady, or has even dipped a bit, in the last five years despite booming growth that county officials estimate has reached 260,000. The county also deals with geographical challenges: the county is roughly the size of Connecticut and population centers are spread out, Schryer said.
“We don’t have major disease outbreaks, Pinal County isn’t a dangerous place to live, but we do have to think proactively in terms of public health,” Schryer said. “It’s our job to make sure we are addressing these public health concerns before we have a critical situation.”
The county’s public health department is charged with providing control, tracking and follow-up of communicable diseases including sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis, and providing immunizations.
The department is also busy with educating residents on a variety of topics from sex to nutrition.
“We’re kind of the safety net for all those folks that don’t have access to a basic level of service or can’t get access,” Schryer said.
People who are buying up new, affordable housing may also need public support. Many are applying for WIC, a supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children, Schryer said.
“The areas that have high growth, like Maricopa, have much higher demand for WIC services,” Schryer said. “The need exceeds our ability to deliver.”
Other areas of service such as tracking communicable diseases are also stretched thin, he said.
For example, the budget for tracking, controlling and treating tuberculosis for the entire county is $35,000 and the county has 15 cases at any given time, he said. In comparison, Greenlee County gets $20,000 and has had one tuberculosis case.
Childhood immunization rates also highlight the health issues in Pinal County, Schryer said.
With the state average hovering around 75 percent for the number of immunized 2-yearolds in the past six years, Pinal County averages 58 percent.
“In Maricopa County most kids go to physicians for immunizations,” Schryer said. “In Pinal County we don’t have as many physicians as we really need. These folks come to us for these services.”
Lisa Garcia, assistant county manager for health and human services, said the conference is important to work toward adequately providing for the county’s growing population.
County Supervisor Sandie Smith said now is a critical time for the county, which only has one hospital, whether the issues are related to roads or health services.
“The (health care) need is great right now and we have to address this by building our partnerships,” Smith said. “That’s a vital part of delivering services.”