VIRGINIA, USA — Loudoun County and Prince William County want to run their own health departments, a move that would require splitting off from Virginia's statewide health district system. A bill on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's desk would authorize just that, and the governor has until March 31 to sign it.
Virginia health departments are funded jointly by the county and state. That is not likely to change if Northam signs SB 1221. What would change is that the current mix of state and county employees would all be employed by the county.
WUSA9 spoke with the board of supervisors chair members from Loudoun County and Prince William County to learn why they want to make that change and what it would mean for both health department employees and county residents.
Our conversations exposed some key overlap and significant differences. Their answers, in condensed form, are below.
Q: Why does your county want to run its own health department and does this effort have to do with COVID-19?
Loudoun County Chair At-Large Phyllis Randall: "This is not related to COVID. This has been in process for at least five or six years in our county. We have 54 state employees and 40 county employees. They often sit side-by-side and they do very much the same work. But the state employees make considerably less in salary. It's just about making sure that the employees who sit next to each other are able to get paid the same pay, receive the same benefits and have the same policies and guidelines."
State employees can make up to $10,000 less than their county colleagues, Randall said. The county supplements those state salaries, she said, but not enough to make them equal. As a result, the health department struggles to retain state employees, Randall said.
Prince William County Chair At-Large Ann Wheeler: "This came up during the pandemic when we realized our span of control wasn't probably as broad as we wanted. It was hard to put county resources behind some of the efforts as easily as we would like. And so that's when we started talking about it, during the pandemic. It's really about a span of control and being able to use all the county resources effectively."
Q: How would this change the way the health department runs?
Loudoun County Chair At-Large Phyllis Randall: "Our state health director, Dr. David Goodfriend, is a state employee. We hope that he would stay on in Loudoun. But what would change is the 54 employees that are state employees would become county employees ... with the same policies, rules, regulations, pay structure, benefits structure, and discipline policies. I hope everyone is aware that for the most part, the office wouldn't run very differently but the employees would be allowed to be under the same system."
Prince William County Chair At-Large Ann Wheeler: "If it were in house (more authority on local heath departments), the director and everyone would be county employees. It would help us focus on some of the priorities of the board just in general regarding public health."
Q: How would this affect county residents?
Loudoun County Chair At-Large Phyllis Randall: "There's always a benefit to county residents when you don't lose employees. It's not such a recruitment issue, it's a retention issue. The turnover costs money and delays operations. And so it would help county residents to not have that churn in the office."
Prince William County Chair At-Large Ann Wheeler: "Having the ability to focus on the priorities of the board with regard to public health would be very beneficial for Prince William County in general. [Residents] would see a more robust public outreach. I think that we would be able to target some of the equity issues across the county, as well as making sure that we had some robust programs and put some resources behind it from a county standpoint."
Wheeler described Prince William County's state-run health department as "chronically underfunded" and said it has been that way for many years.
Right now, the department has a 27% vacancy rate across the department, said Wheeler.
"We think that going forward, we can actually put more resources to it," Wheeler said.
Prince William County is not yet formally included in the bill sitting on Governor Northam's desk. Instead, the county has asked the governor to amend the bill to include Prince William County and the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park before he signs it.
Fairfax County and Arlington County are the only two counties in Virginia that currently run their own health departments.