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New (free) Health Department facility voted down by County Commission

by David Morgan, Lawrence County Executive

I grew up in a single-income family with six kids, so we weren’t rich by any means. Still, we were wealthier than most because my parents invited God’s presence and love into our home, and they loved us and each other.

They also didn’t skimp on our health care, because we were all Health Department kids. We received quality healthcare at the department’s former location on West Gaines (currently housing our Ambulance Service) and its current one on Buffalo Road.

The Lawrence County Health Department offers more services than ever to a growing number of patients. Thirty-two percent of Lawrence Countians use our Health Department to get crucial services they cannot otherwise afford. One hundred percent of us benefit from Environmental Health services that inspect restaurants, public swimming pools, childcare facilities, and more.

Health Department Director Devin Ezell tells me overall patient numbers have grown by 1,000 over the past year. The number of WIC participants (the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) is increasing significantly, and in one recent month served 1,054. Our Health Department issues over $1 million in WIC vouchers a year, which are redeemed at local businesses.

The Health Department is one of three in this region that provides primary care services and patients leave with a three-month supply of their non-narcotic medications. Lawrence County issues more medications than even Maury County because we have more patients in poverty with no health insurance. The department’s pharmacy can no longer hold all the medications it dispenses on a monthly basis.  

Some of the other services provided by the Lawrence County Health Department include dental care (2 days a week); child health and immunizations; family planning; breastfeeding support; newborn screenings; community and individual health education; breast and cervical cancer testing; a tobacco prevention program; testing and treatment for communicable diseases, including TB and STDs; and services that help patients (and parents of children with special needs) with referrals to other medical and social services.

All of this is provided from two buildings that serve as our Health Department. The “back” building on the property was built in 1974, the “front” one in 2004. Primary and dental care have been added since 2004, putting a greater strain on an overcrowded facility.

The Health Department is located on a very busy road with no sidewalks and very little shoulder. Many patients walk, but those who drive have trouble finding parking because the department has outgrown its parking lot as well.

I am telling you this because Lawrence County stands at a crossroads where public health is concerned. We have the best opportunity we will ever have to build a new Health Department that will serve the community’s needs, completely paid for with state and federal dollars.

For this we can thank COVID and the American Rescue Plan Act. ARPA funds provided to the state were offered as grants to Tennessee communities for new/improved Health Departments. The initial $2.1 million grant we were awarded would not cover our needs, so then-County Executive T.R. Williams presented our plan and a request for additional funds. That request was granted, and today the state share is $4,532,400, or 79% of the cost to build a 12,500-square-foot facility.

A separate COVID-related grant is providing $250,000 of that amount so our new health department will have a covered area outdoors where patients can be tested and vaccinated in the event of another pandemic. Our Health Department provided COVID testing for three years and administered a total of 45,000 COVID vaccines. If you remember, that operation had to be moved to the Lawrenceburg Fire Department on Springer Road.

Grants typically require a local match, but this one is again provided by the federal government. In 2022, the Commission passed a resolution appropriating $1,205,900 from our ARPA funds to supply the match. The total cost, at today’s construction price of $400/square foot, will be $5,738,300, with no county taxpayer dollars used. It’s actually a tax return to Lawrence County from the state and federal government. State funds will also provide all furniture and equipment for the new facility.

The only stumbling block we’re facing is a location for the new Health Department. We looked at various options, even a collaboration with the School System for land at the West Highland property because Director of Schools Michael Adkins sees the value of it and was a health department kid just like me.

In two Commission meetings, Commissioners have voted not to purchase a little over four acres from the Lawrenceburg Rotary Club between Mahr and Liberty Avenues. The price is $200,000, which is less than its appraised value. I believe Commissioners turned it down because they didn’t understand that this cost is part of our $1.2 million match – those federal funds already appropriated for the new Health Department.

I am asking you to call your County Commissioner and urge them to vote for this land purchase when they consider it again at their Special Session on June 25. We need a new Health Department to serve our current and future needs, and the location is ideal for patients who walk to their appointments. Another opportunity like this will NOT come our way again.

Not everyone has private insurance with the privilege of choosing their doctor. Let those of us who do, which includes myself and the entire commission, ensure that those who depend on these services get not only great care but a great facility equipped and ready to go for the next 40 years. 

And who knows? There’s a good chance a future County Executive and Director of Schools could get their health care needs met by the great staff at the Lawrence County Health Department.

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