The Long Beach Health and Human Services Department, which provides the city’s public health services, got a check-up from residents last Wednesday, Nov. 14 as part of 5th District Long Beach City Councilmember Gerrie Schipske’s “Open Up Long Beach” tour series. The campaign, which the councilmember states is an effort to make the City more “open, transparent and accountable,” gives residents an inside look into City departments, programs and services.
The more than 100-year-old health department is considered a rarity, since it is one of only three city-operated, full-service health jurisdictions, including Pasadena and Berkeley, in California. Vernon provides its own environmental health inspection services but works with Los Angeles County to oversee that function. All other cities in the state receive public-health services through their respective counties.
Michael Johnson, administrative manager for the Long Beach health department, however, said the scenario was originally the other way around. “Public health actually started in cities,” he said, adding that it was local municipalities that first ran public-health agencies due to concerns about the birth of children, sanitation issues with water and other local health concerns.
As public health evolved, most cities relinquished their duties to counties, considering that counties would be the “future of public health,” Johnson said. However, public health, which focuses on “prevention” measures, and the broader spectrum of primary health care, which includes hospitals, have always remained separate operations, he said. “I like to think that we did alright here in Long Beach, because we never gave it up,” Johnson said.
First established in 1906, the Long Beach health department has gone through its own changes as well. After operating out of a facility on Pacific Avenue for many years, the department is currently located at 2525 Grand Ave., just south of Willow Street. It also once managed the city’s animal-control program, which got shifted to the Parks, Recreation & Marine Department.
Schipske, a registered nurse who has served on the department’s 15-member Board of Health and Human Services , said the primary goals of the department are to control communicable diseases and provide health education and immunizations to the public. However, nowadays, she said the department deals with more than just public health, taking on a wide-range of responsibilities in the city and expanding its “human services” functions.
Although the department has an annual $120-million budget, most of the department’s funds come from state taxes, only allocated to public health that grants aren’t able to pay for, Johnson said. Another portion goes to the administration of low-income housing services. In all, only about $800,000 comes from the City’s General Fund, he said.
The multifaceted operation consists of public-health nurses, environmental-health inspectors, doctors, health educators, case managers and lab technicians. When functioning properly, the department is nearly invisible to the public, Johnson said, adding that prevention is the main goal. “When we prevent a problem from happening, you don’t know about it,” he said. “That’s really one of the challenging issues about public health.”
The department, however, is also considered the city’s “first responder” when it comes to infectious diseases, while partnering with the City’s fire and police departments, in addition to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2009, the health department was the first local health agency to diagnose the H1N1 virus, also known as the Swine Flu, in the local area.
During last week’s presentation, residents were able to tour the health department’s accredited laboratory. According to public health officials, the laboratory is monitored by the FBI to prevent bioterrorism attacks. Through advanced equipment, the laboratory is able to conduct blood and environmental lead testing, in addition to molecular testing to support outbreak identification.
The health department also tests for diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, while providing an array of human and social services.
Over the years, however, Los Angeles County and Long Beach have gone their separate ways on certain issues. One noticeable difference is that the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health requires that all food facilities in cities and unincorporated areas put up letter grades or scores according to their inspection, as part of the County’s food facility rating program. Long Beach, however, requires that restaurants post a checklist that notes whether a food establishment passed or failed.
More recently, divergence between the entities has caused some confusion. Voters recently approved a Los Angeles County initiative, known as Measure B, which mandates condom use among adult-film actors and requires that porn producers apply for public health permits. But County officials contend that the measure doesn’t apply to cities with their own health departments, indicating that Long Beach, Vernon and Pasadena must adopt their own ordinances and enforce them themselves to follow suit with the County’s new law. Long Beach officials, however, dispute the County’s claim.
Still, Johnson said having a local health department comes with advantages, adding that, unlike Los Angeles County, which oversees the public health of 88 cities and a population of more than 10 million people, Long Beach has to provide services for the city’s population of just nearly 500,000 people. “We work very hard to identify a local need and look for a resource to address that local need,” he said. “… And we work very closely with the community.”
Dr. Mitchell Kushner, the Long Beach health department’s new city health officer, who worked for Los Angeles County public health before taking the post about three months ago, said new areas of concern for Long Beach communities are the epidemics of obesity and diabetes. He said the department received a grant to help prevent these health conditions among neighborhoods and schools. “We are working in the communities of Long Beach that are so impacted by this, and, hopefully, we’re starting to make a difference,” Kushner said.