Health department faces uncertain future

County department meetings to address future budget needs are about a month away and a new vacancy will present potential challenges during the process.
Gino Solla, the longtime director of the Ector County Health Department, will be retiring at the end of this month after 25 years of employment with the county, and with his absence he is concerned that the department will fall to the bottom of the county’s list of priorities.
The health department’s budget has been gradually scaled back over the years from about $1.2 million in 2016 to about $964,000 this fiscal year. Solla said the department has also seen a reduction of about $150,000 in grant funds, which has reduced the number of employees on staff, as well as the services they can offer.
He said the department cannot keep up with the current patient load with only two full-time registered nurses and often has to shut their doors and divert residents seeking immunizations, STD screenings or tuberculosis testing to later times or even the next day.
“We’ve cut our budget tremendously,” Solla said. “There’s no more room to cut. You keep losing employees like that, but the population increases, which requires more services. How do you do it?”
Advocacy on the department’s behalf for the upcoming fiscal year might be lacking without Solla’s expertise. He has been asked to give the responsibility of attending budget meetings with county commissioners to the employee he feels would be best suited to speak on the subject. Currently his replacement has not been identified and the county cannot publish a job posting until Solla officially leaves his position.
“There’s not an assistant director to move up that’s been trained, or is knowledgeable about the budgets, or the actual operational side of the department,” he said.
Ector County Judge Debi Hays said that many unknowns exist until the county moves forward with the budget process.
A proposed budget for 2020 will be completed by early August. The final budget must be adopted by commissioners by Sept. 10.
“Right now, the main focus I think we’ll have through the budget is the addition to the jail,” Hays said. “We need to make sure we have the money to man it and that will take precedence over everything else.”
Hays said the opinions expressed by residents during town halls over the past year also carry weight. The top three concerns shared at public forums involved adding additional law enforcement, funding road infrastructure projects and combating illegal dumping.
The county judge said no one has approached her and asked for additional nurses.
“You have Odessa Regional Medical Center and Medical Center Hospital that provide free programs to all residents of Ector County to help them with diabetes needs, heart problems and dietary needs as far weight control and with cholesterol, so both of those entities provide all of those services,” she said. “There is a clinic on every corner, but no one else can provide services that the jail can provide.”
Solla said he has tried to impart a sense of urgency for preventative health to officials and all residents in the community, but he said fighting against the cultural mindset of the majority has been tough.
The needle has not moved much for health behaviors or outcomes in Ector County since 2010.
The county was ranked 199 out of 242 Texas counties on health behaviors like adult obesity, physical inactivity and access to exercise opportunities in a 2018 county health rankings report published by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute in collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Midland County ranked 110, Tom Green County ranked 94, Andrews County ranked 65 and El Paso County came in at 59 on the same health behavior measure.
Ector County ranked 200 out of 221 counties on health behaviors in 2010.
Solla suggested the community as a whole is mirroring a national trend of more people needing health services but not having access to enough health providers.
When Solla asked commissioners during a regularly scheduled meeting about what their vision for the health department was following an agenda item listed as budget goals for 2019 to 2020 and long-range planning, Ector County Attorney Dusty Gallivan said the Court could not answer that question without the subject being placed specifically on the agenda.
Hays said on Tuesday that “I can’t tell you what the health department will look like in six months.”