- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - A northern Indiana county plans to hire a full-time physician to help improve the health of its residents.

St. Joseph County hasn’t had a full-time health officer since 2004, when Dr. Janice Carson, sister of Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson, retired. Health officials weren’t able to find another physician with administrative experience, so they cut the position to 16 hours a week.

But concerns about health issues such as obesity, tobacco use and infant mortality prompted a move to return to a full-time position, the South Bend Tribune reported (https://bit.ly/1IVQLYP ).

“You could do this 16 hours a week if all you’re doing is monitoring what’s going on, but we see all that can be done and that needs to be done for the health of this community,” interim health officer Dr. Dale Deardorff said. “If you look at the county’s health rankings, they show us in about the middle of the state, and Indiana’s not really very stellar when it comes to the national rankings.”

The part-time position costs about $62,000 a year, while a full-time health officer will cost $140,000 annually. The county will be able to fund the difference for about 2 ½ years using $277,000 left over from a 1998 national settlement with major tobacco companies over smoking-related illnesses.

If the department can’t find funding once that money runs out, the position will revert to part-time status, Deardorff said.

State law requires counties to have a licensed physician serve as a health officer, but only a few have full-time positions, said Nick Molchan, administrator of the St. Joseph County office.

One of those is Allen County, which has had a full-time health officer since 2000. Dr. Deborah McMahan is paid $138,000 annually, 75 percent of which comes from the county and the rest from the tobacco settlement fund. The county also has an administrator.

Elkhart County has had a full-time officer since 1977. That position is fully funded by the county, said Dr. Dan Nafziger, who holds the job.

He thinks that’s the best funding approach for the neighboring county.

“I would recommend or prefer that the county step up and fund that position from the general fund. I think that’s in the county’s best interest,” Nafziger said.

That might not be possible. St. Joseph County has been cutting services in response to property tax cuts. Birth and death certificates are no longer available at the health department’s Mishawaka office, flu mist vaccines for children have been eliminated and a clinic for sexually transmitted diseases has closed. Hours for an immunization clinic have been cut in half.

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com

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