Indiana sets up blue-ribbon commission to modernize state’s public health system

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Gov. Eric Holcomb is setting up a blue-ribbon commission to examine Indiana’s public health system as the state continues to struggle with some of the highest rates of obesity, smoking, physical inactivity, annual immunizations and public health funding in the nation.

“The task ahead couldn’t be more important,” Holcomb said at a press conference Wednesday. “… You might say this is our Achilles’ heel.”

The 15-member commission will examine topics ranging from funding and resources to delivery of services and collection and use of data, Holcomb said.

He said the goal is to make recommendations for improvements and standardization that can be shared with the Indiana General Assembly by next summer. He said the state would not be able to continue performing well economically if it did not begin to do better when it came to public health.

Holcomb said such a review was planned before the pandemic, “which has only exacerbated the need the modernize Indiana’s public health system.”

The announcement comes as Indiana continues to deal with a surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, which are almost all among people who are unvaccinated.

Dr. Kris Box, Indiana state health commissioner, said the panel will look at a broad array of issues, including whether Indiana’s 94 local health departments can share resources. Many of them are stretched thin, especially in small counties. Local health departments are responsible for a wide array of duties, from inspecting restaurants and investigating disease outbreaks to keeping vital records and providing immunizations.

“Do we need to have certain counties support other counties?” Box said. “Would counties like to join together to have, for instance, one food safety person that goes out and does all the inspections and licensure, or one lead person that goes out and investigates elevated blood levels?”

The commission will be co-chaired by former state Sen. Luke Kenley and former Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Judy Monroe, who now serves as president and CEO of the CDC Foundation, a not-for-profit that raises funds for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The other members of the commission have yet to be announced.

Some of the recommendations, such as increasing funding for public health, would require the approval of the Republican-led Legislature, which has been at odds with Holcomb on some health issues.

Holcomb vetoed a bill in May that would take away the power of local health departments in responding to health emergencies and would allow local elected officials to overrule orders issued by a city or county health departments. The Legislature later overrode the veto.

Indiana Democrats quickly took issue Wednesday with Holcomb’s announcement, saying the state needs to do more to respond to the pandemic.

“Indiana becomes a healthy state when it addresses today’s most pressing problems facing families, and right now that’s COVID-19,” Lauren Ganapini, executive director of the Indiana Democratic Party, said in written remarks. “Unfortunately, Governor Holcomb and his administration today treated the pandemic as if the worst was behind Indiana when in fact, the state is experiencing a new wave of cases brought on by the highly-contagious delta variant.”

Holcomb has urged Hoosiers to get vaccinated but has refrained from issuing any new restrictions as the pandemic continues. He has stated his support to the growing number of school districts across the state issuing mask mandates for students and staff as they try to head off more COVID-19 outbreaks.

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